Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark are respectively books 2-4 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and the quickest way for me to describe them would be “more of the same”. Together with book 1, they constitute a distinct story arc within the overarching series, and as #2-#4 in particular feel like one giant novel, I have chosen to review them in a group. (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here.)
These books are “more of the same” in a literal sense: they follow the same protagonists along the same story arc begun in Empire in Black and Gold. They are epic fantasies, and they offer an imaginative world with some spectacular set-pieces. And they represent an improvement over the first book in one small but noticeable way – no more head-hopping!
Unfortunately, they also offer too much of the same in one key way. Where Empire’s plot was strong and tightly focused, its sequels introduce a common genre problem: sprawl. Over these books, the characters fan out across the world, meeting new faces, discovering new locations, and getting into subplot… after subplot… after subplot. I didn’t care for all of these, but I’m willing to concede that’s a matter of taste; besides, I loved one particular subplot, almost Miyazaki-like in its evocation of a brotherhood of aviators. The problem isn’t so much the quality of the subplots as their quantity: they slow down the story to a crawl, culminating in a weak book 3/early book 4. It doesn’t help that the sequels fall into another genre trap, noticeable character plot armour, that the first book cleverly sidestepped.
In the second half of book 4, though, Tchaikovsky rediscovers his muse. The subplots come together, the action speeds up, the story arcs incubating since book 2 finally come to fruition, and the plot armour vanishes. And this is what redeems these books. At that magic moment in book 4, I went from dissatisfied to newly enthralled, and that momentum carried me through to the end.
Ultimately, these books aren’t quite what I’d hoped: compared to his debut, I think Tchaikovsky took two steps forward and one big step, labelled “PACING”, back. Nonetheless, they finish well enough to be worth a look for people who enjoyed book 1. I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.