Dragonfly Falling: It’s weird, but it works

fantasy book reviews Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt: 1. Empire in Black and Gold, 2. Dragonfly Falling, 3. Blood of the Mantisfantasy book review Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt 1. Empire in Black and Gold 2. Dragonfly FallingDragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Between introducing the uniquely imaginative concept of ‘Insect-kinden’ and showcasing a well-rounded display of characterization, world-building, story, pacing and prose, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold was not only an impressive debut, it was also a memorable start to an exciting new fantasy series. A direct continuation of Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling is basically more of the same, just on a larger and more entertaining scale.

Like Empire in Black and Gold, the highlight of Dragonfly Falling is once again the Insect-kinden who, with their diverse Arts and philosphies, continue to lend the saga a distinctive quality despite utilizing such familiar fantasy themes as war, slavery, conspiracy, racial/culturual barriers, etc. For example, battles and sieges are given a whole new dynamic because of the different ways that each race fights — the Ant-kinden use their hive-mind to give them an advantage in tactics and coordination; the Wasps ruthlessly use their superior numbers and Auxillian slaves to overwhelm the enemy, yet are also forward-thinking in exploiting the weaknesses of other races; the Moth-kinden use magic; and the Beetle-kinden use their artificers to forge new weapons of war. Other examples of the uniqueness that the Insect-kinden bring to the books are the way Bee-kinden can be forced into slavery just by the capture of their Queen and Spider-kinden who are masters of deception and subterfuge, which makes loving one extremely dicey, especially if she’s already betrayed you once. As far as new Insect-kinden, Dragonfly Falling introduces Woodlouse-kinden, the giant Mole Crickets and the vampire-like Mosquito-kinden. Unfortunately, we don’t get to learn too much about them, although I expect the Mosquito-kinden will play a much larger role in future volumes. On the flipside, we do receive a somewhat deeper look at Spider and Mantis-kinden cultures.

Story-wise, with the groundwork already laid out in Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling starts out fast and furious and doesn’t really let up for the entire book. For the most part, Dragonfly Falling concentrates on the Wasp Empire’s invasion of the Lowlands including seiges at Tark and Collegium, the takeover of Helleron, and the Battle of the Rails; but at the same time there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well — the Wasp Emperor’s desire for immortality, a power struggle among the Wasp Empire’s CIA-like Rekef sect, a Dragonfly-kinden’s quest for revenge, Salma finding the Butterfly dancer Aagen’s Joy, Tynisa embracing her heritage, and a magical ‘Shadow Box’ just to name a few.

Of the characters, Stenwold Maker, Che, Tynisa, Tisamon, Prince Salma, Totho, and Thalric remain among the series’ most important players, but — with the exception of Stenwold, Totho, Thalric and possibly Salma — they take a backseat to a ton of new characters that could be just as, if not more, important going forward. Among the new faces, I particularly enjoyed the storylines involving the haunted Felise Mienn, the Mosquito-kinden Uctebri the Sarcad, and the Colonel-Auxillian Dariandrephos, the Wasp Empire’s most gifted artificer. Strangely, the Moth-kinden Achaeos had a really small role in the book, but it looks like he will play a much bigger part in future volumes, along with a certain Spider spymaster…

The setting meanwhile, with all of its technological advances, remains fantastic with the book introducing all sorts of new toys like submersibles, one-person winged fliers, a sandbow and Totho’s devastating invention, the snapbow — a firearm basically — which promises to not only change the face of the war, but the future of the world. Magic in the meantime, remains subtle, but the Darakyon are still around, Uctebri supposedly has the power to grant Alvdan immortality, and there’s that aforementioned Shadow Box. In short, you just get the feeling that magic and technology are going to soon collide with one another in this series with catastrophic results.

On the negative side, Dragonfly Falling is plagued by pretty much the same problems that Empire in Black and Gold was including lackluster background history, POVs that occasionlly switch between characters without warning, a narrative that is at times predictable, and prose that is a bit bland — even if it is consistent and accessible. However, with Dragonfly Falling’s stronger and more engaging story, a better cast of characters, and the book’s more epic scope, I found such issues to be even less of a nonfactor than it was when reading Tchaikovsky’s debut.

Overall, Dragonfly Falling is another impressive offering from Adrian Tchaikovsky which builds on the solid foundation established by Empire in Black and Gold, while setting the stage for what promises to be exciting and dark times for the rest of the Shadows of the Apt series. Personally, I can’t wait for more.

~Robert Thompson

fantasy book review Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt 1. Empire in Black and Gold 2. Dragonfly FallingDragonfly Falling is the amazing follow-up to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold. The story directly follows the events of book 1. The wasps have increased their hold on the lowlands, and the position of our heroes is much more precarious. The empire has begun its assault and the blood is flowing. Tchaikovsky’s battle descriptions are nothing short of epic, bloody, and gritty, with nail-biting sequences that seem to run for pages. Empire in Black and Gold introduced you to the players, and set the overall stage. I struggled a bit with its pacing, but had none of that problem here. Dragonfly Falling is truly when the dung beetle hits the fan.

The characters continue to grow and change in amazing ways. Like Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling explores the many facets of the various characters. Who’s good and who’s bad is not always so clear cut, and that’s refreshing. I’ve also come to realize that there are just as many “Insect Kinden” in Tchaikovskys world as there are insects. I stopped keeping track of them about a quarter of the way through the book. As nice as it is to have a diverse population in your story, you lose a bit by always having a convenient race to solve various issues. It’s not a device often used in the story, but the potential for abuse is there. I wonder if it will become a little more prominent as the series progresses.

I am so glad Pyr has decided to release the Shadows of the Apt series in the US, as so far it has been incredibly well written and unique. Dragonfly Falling raises the stakes in every way possible, and I’m excited to see how everything progresses in book 3, Blood of the Mantis. Dragonfly Falling does everything right, and I really can’t find many faults. Tchaikovsky’s writing is top notch and seems to be getting even better. In a genre where a lot of ho-hum stuff gets over-hyped, do not let Shadows of the Apt fly under your radar.

~Justin Blazier

fantasy book review Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt 1. Empire in Black and Gold 2. Dragonfly FallingAdrian Tchaikovsky has a terrific series going with his Shadows of the Apt. Dragonfly Falling, the second in what will be a series of at least ten books, continues building a unique new fantasy world in which mankind is divided into numerous races that resemble, in some ways, various species of insects. It’s a weird idea, but it works, and the differences between the races seem often to drive the narrative.

Dragonfly Falling gives us many more species than we’ve seen previously, and draws out the characteristics of each race. Ants, for instance — and there are several different species (and cities) of ants — tend to be excellent soldiers, particularly as they share a hive mind. If you’ve ever wondered what a city of telepaths would sound like, Tchaikovsky has the answer: it’s quiet. And an army of ants is darned near undefeatable, because the whole army can simultaneously act as one unit and as many individuals. Beetles, on the other hand, tend to be pretty terrible soldiers, but they are excellent technicians and can create weapons that would never occur to other species. Indeed, some species, like Dragonflies, can barely comprehend most technology, even to simply use it. It makes for an awesome place to visit in 500 page segments.

There are a plethora of characters in this novel, some of whom we’ve met in Empire in Black and Gold (Stenwold Maker, a Beetle-kinden spymaster and statesman, a resident of Collegium, and Thalric, a major in the Wasp secret service, most notably among them) and some of whom are new — and the canvas on which Tchaikovsky is drawing continues to grow. We’re introduced to the Emperor of the Wasp Empire, his sister, and various of his hangers-on. We confront the Spider culture; meet the enclave of the Mantises; and learn more about the mysterious Moths. And we learn, as we always do in the best books, that no one is purely evil and no one is purely good: Totho, one of Stenwold’s coterie, is the primary example we have of that, though Thalric isn’t far behind him. Moral questions are pondered, dissected, acted upon, regretted, making this far more than a novel about a war in a fantasy world.

Indeed, the actual warmaking is perhaps the least interesting part of this book. I found it easy to set the book down in the middle of a siege, but much more difficult to let go of when the subject was spycraft. Wasps letting loose their stings, Beetles their crossbows, and so on, starts to sound repetitive after awhile, but treachery and diplomacy both never seem to be predictable or any less than exciting. Watching alliances form and fail and re-form and sometimes succeed is fascinating.

There is a steampunk feel to much of Dragonfly Falling. Automotives seem to have legs rather than wheels; flying machines are rare and spectacular and of all sorts, from fixed wing aircraft to what we would call dirigibles; weapons technology has not yet come upon gunpowder. Invention is, in fact, one of the real themes of this series, and we get to see a good deal more of it in this installment. War, as ever, seems to cause new inventions and new applications of technology at an incredible rate. The question, as ever, is whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; or is it, simply, mixed? The philosophical questions never get lost in the action, but are given their due in the conversations, thoughts and even the agonies of the various characters.

The third book in the series, Blood of the Mantis, awaits my attention. I can’t wait to dive in.

~Terry Weyna

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

View all posts by Robert Thompson (RETIRED)

One comment

  1. I am really looking forward to reading these books. I have the 3 that Pyr released so far on the shelf, and they’ll be some of the first books I reach for when my schedule opens up a bit.

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