Size is the first noticeable difference between Blood of the Mantis and the preceding two books of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt. In comparison to Dragonfly Falling's impressive 672 pages, the latest instalment offers a measly 429, making it the shortest of the series. And indeed it proves to be a more focused book, with no real room for the large scale battles that dominate its predecessors. While the cast and overarching plot remain largely the same, the mood of the series changes enormously; turning gradually from optimistic light-heartedness and straightforward warfare towards political manipulation and the darker side of human nature.
The series takes place in the Lowlands, part of the world of the insect-kinden, where humans have long ago adopted characteristics from various arthropods. Certain species can fly, many are adept at fighting and some can even communicate via a hive mind. Some prefer to resolve conflict relatively peacefully, while others want nothing more than to kill, maim, and destroy. The beetle-kinden Stenwold Maker, now war master of the city of Collegium, has up until now managed to defend his home against the onslaught of the Wasp Empire, a malevolent nation of flying fascists with the intention of taking over the world. In order to achieve this he has recruited a small consortium of allies, including mercenaries, ex-students, friends and relatives. Together, they must now focus their efforts on hindering the growth of the Empire before it can muster enough strength to strike again. Blood of the Mantis begins as Stenwold's party separates into three main groups, each with its own mission. The artist Nero is sent, with Sten's niece Che, in search of allies at the seaside city of Solarno, a foreign land with exotic political systems and unusual traditions. Meanwhile, Wasp defector Thalric is forced to team up with his former nemeses in a vendetta against his old masters. This leads them to Jerez, a Lovecraftian marsh town rife with smuggling and a fair share of secrets. Their goal is the highly sought after Shadow Box, the heart of the Darakyon, a mystical artefact of power, imbued with evil and malignancy. Kind of like the One Ring. Or Ian Irvine's Mirror of Aachan. Or any other semi-sentient relic with a tendency towards nastiness. Should it fall into the hands of Emperor-come-Führer Aldvan, the world will never recover. So they have to get there first.
Stenwold on the other hand, the mind behind the resistance, stays behind to parley with other great powers to determine the future of the Snapbow, a devastating new weapon developed by his turncoat ex-apprentice, Totho. It is potentially the only chance the Lowlands has of survival, though to place it into the wrong hands would be disastrous. Which doesn't help much when there are spies coming out of the walls and even the supposed good-guys are bursting with their own dark little agendas.
Time passes, along with an orchestra of subplots, before the book ends on a low note, with roughly two thirds of the protagonists completely failing at everything and left with little to no hope of redemption. Even before this, scenes of brutal torture and lurid experimentation create a less than cheerful atmosphere in which the reader can expect anything but hope. The transition from wantonness to godlessness is gradual but executed almost flawlessly, reflecting the ever encroaching "march of progress," a recurring symbol of increasing technology built at the cost of human compassion—"A mechanised inevitability whose wheels would grind up anyone who stood before it" (p. 319). The destructive power of the Snapbow, for example, is conveyed not through the countless lives it ends, but through the anesthetising effect it has on its creator and those who wish to use it. Little by little, Totho's ability to feel sorrow and pity ebbs away, replaced with a mechanical potency similar to that of the weapon itself:
Now he looked back on that [. . . ] tried to feel appalled by what he had done, but that was getting harder and harder the longer he worked for Drephos. (p. 314)
Located after a scene of callous corporal punishment, this passage is twofold in meaning. Totho's harsh nature is made clear by his acts of violence and his desire to continue his work, though his self-reflection implies that his conscience is not completely forfeit. It seems contradictory to regret an inability to feel regret, giving the impression that his apathy is merely a defence mechanism to allow him to continue his work.
Drephos on the other hand, the "maverick halfbreed master artificer" who cares for "absolutely nothing but his craft" (p. 159), is allowed no such redeeming quality. His absence throughout the majority of the novel says a lot about his character, as he devotedly slaves away in isolation on his latest sinister project: "A weapon of weapons, where to simply grasp the hilt, to simply possess it, is to slay your enemies" (p. 375). It seems most likely that this refers to a gas based or even biological weapon (we don't find out in this volume), a killer that can be unleashed at the press of a button. But Drephos could equally be referring to a number of other examples of developing technology. The array of available weaponry grows ever more impersonal, produced in order to kill without looking the victim in the eyes. Dogfights between steampunk flying machines are the only large scale battle scenes, and even these are distant from the people that participate in them. Instead, the machines themselves are anthropomorphised, beings unto themselves, capable of fighting their own wars.
Almost everything is seen in terms of the weapon, whether it be physical, psychological or paranormal. Even Stenwold's humanist rhetoric is portrayed as a method of warfare, though Stenwold himself could not be less like a warrior if he tried. "In time, he thought, we could conquer the world with our reason and good intentions" (p. 400). Though world domination is not at the top of Stenwold's to-do-list, he acknowledges the power his logic holds over people. This seemingly paradoxical ethos pops up again and again, as people realise that there are subtler ways of winning wars than those employed by the likes of the ancient Mantis warriors. As a whole, Blood of the Mantis is less about solving complex situations with massive pitched battles and more about absolving enmities through carefully placed politics and the threat of power. As mechanical arms increase in strength, the responsibility they carry with them grows. Mutually assured destruction becomes a relevant concern which forces underhand tactics rather than the in-your-face sword and sorcery that many fantasy novels rely on. By the end of the novel, technological change has rewritten society and the world along with it.
Opposed to this march of progress, though, are the ancient throwbacks that still cling desperately to the old ways of the world. Sorcery proves an interesting antithesis to technology, concerned with preservation, stasis and even immortality. However, while the outward goals of science and magic may conflict, the methods they employ are intrinsically bound: "Thus it is that the simplest tricks of any magician can blind all eyes, because you Apt all accept whatever happens to you as if it made some sort of mechanical sense" (p. 366), claims Uctebri, the villainous Mosquito Kinden. He makes it clear that mysticism and mechanism go hand in hand even as they openly attempt to subjugate one another. Both are used as instruments of control and openly supporting either faction is to is to openly support oppression. Only Stenwold seems irresolute, completely refuting both ways of thinking. "Progress," he argues, "is made by the improvement of people, not the improvement of machines" (291). (Although this improvement is never elaborated upon and comes across as stubbornly elusive.) Though Stenwold is one of the few to recognise the shortcomings of both tradition and progress, he finds it exceedingly difficult to come up with any pragmatic alternatives. Instead he spends the majority of the novel wasting as much time as possible in a noble but ultimately futile attempt to postpone the bloodshed.
However, while cities fall and innocent people die it is often slightly difficult to sympathise, or even care. There is never any recognition of the aftermath of battles, which in effect leaves the reader completely apathetic towards the victories of the Wasps and the losses of the lowlands. The main cast seem to continuously retreat across the map, remaining staunchly unaffected by any trading sanctions or embargos. The loss of Helleron, the industrial capital of the Lowlands, in
In most ways, though, the book masterfully reflects the history it draws on, most prominently that of the Second World War. Consequences of appeasement force a desperate League of Nations into existence in the path of a fascist threat. Technology changes the face of warfare so drastically it can hardly be recognised as warfare anymore. It changes its creators until they resemble the technology itself and it causes horrifying stalemates in which no party wins. Consider a final passage located after a torture scene, in which the full implications of such a war come to light:
"You tortured her! You. . . " He wanted to say, animals, savages, but, no, this was the handiwork of the civilized, the darkness of a mechanistic people. (p. 288)
The phrase "darkness of a mechanistic people" could easily be rewritten as Shadows of the Apt. It is not the people that are evil, but the types of machines they make and the machines they make themselves into, whether it be the machine of the Empire, designed to assimilate, or the machines of Drephos, designed to annihilate. The function of such machines is placed at the forefront of their design, their tasks carried out with blind efficiency and a complete disregard for the social cost involved. The torture of Sperra by the ant-kinden, Stenwold's supposed allies, gets the job done but in such a ruthless manner that the reader has to question whether or not this is a pyrrhic victory. Death, as the saying goes, is not evil. Evil is mechanical.
Peter Whitfield is a student living in the North-East of England.