(2021) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor, £9.99, pbk, 549pp, ISBN 978-1-529-05190-2
Never let it be said that Adrian doesn’t think big ideas in his science fiction! Before this Space Opera really begins, we have had the Earth destroyed by an alien species called the Architects, who seem to travel space in moon-sized spaceships redesigning things to look better – other spaceships, planets, that sort of thing, regardless of any living thing there at the time.
As a result of this meeting between Humans and Aliens there was a war for nearly eighty years. It did not go well, with the Humans often being on the losing end of things. However, for reasons that will be explained in the novel, the Architects then abruptly disappeared, leaving us with where we are now, forty-five years after that. What is left of the human race, mainly grouped together as part of The Council of Human Interests, or ‘Hugh’, is scattered through the galaxy, living alongside a huge variety of generally more-friendly aliens who also have suffered at the hands of the Architects. Even now, there is a constant vigilance, as many fear what would happen if the Architects returned.
In this setting our major focus is upon the crew of the good ship Vulture God. Led by their Captain Rollo Rostand, they spend their time travelling the galaxy as a spaceship for hire. As you might expect we have a diverse group of different characters and species that make up the group. As well as Rollo there’s Olli, a Human drone specialist, Kris, a space lawyer, Kittering, an Hannilambra accountant, Medvig, one of the group of hive-mind Hivers who is a catalogue specialist, and Barney, an engineer.
Most important is Idris Telemmier, a human survivor of the Architects War and a valuable asset. Idris is an Intermediary, or ‘Int’, and has the rare ability to navigate through ‘unspace’ to travel vast distances. For Idris it is unpleasant but do-able, even though such actions in the past have driven other Ints previously mad. However, he is a troubled character, having being affected by his infiltration of the mind of an Architect before it withdrew its attack on the planet of Far Lux. He may in fact be one of the reasons for the Architects leaving, although this is unclear at the beginning of the book.
He is so important that at the beginning of the novel Myrmidon Executor Solace has been asked to make him an offer and joins the crew to do so. Solace has a history with Idris. She is one of the Partheni, a female clone warrior race with superior agility trained to fight from an early age. Whilst they were both involved in the ending of the War, the Partheni are generally mistrusted and regarded with suspicion now by the humans.
Having set the scene, the story becomes interesting when the Vulture God is given the relatively simple task of collecting a derelict space hulk for salvage. All sounds like a typical job – but when they go to fetch it, the realise to their horror that it seems to have been destroyed in a style recognisable as being by the Architects.
Is it a sign that the Architects are back? And if so, can they be stopped?
The crew are advised not to speak about their find and generate a galaxy-wide panic, although at this point the derelict and the Vulture God are stolen by a faction. The crew chase after them, and a host of other interested parties chase after them in turn. The rest of the novel deals with this chase and what else the crew discover along the way, all of which have plot-twisting consequences. This involves visiting a variety of planets and encountering a number of different peoples, both Human and alien.
Lots of elements to recognise here – perhaps most obviously Firefly, but also even Rendezvous with Rama and – believe it or not - Wonder Woman. But the fact is that this combination of elements is done so well. The characterisation and their various interactions are on a par with Chris Wooding’s 'Ketty Jay' series or perhaps Alastair Reynolds’s recent Revenger series, with appropriate dialogue and the sort of rapport you get with long-term relationships.
Most of all, I loved the sheer variety of alien planets and species created here. It feels like the author had a lot of fun creating such a populated galaxy, to the point where, at times, it felt rather like James White’s 'Sector General' stories with the number of species mentioned. We have the Hivers (a cyborg intelligence hive-mind), crab-like Hannilambra who are a whiz at accounting, vicious Castigar and nasty symbiotic Puppet Masters-like Tothiat amongst all the odd Humans, and others. The Hegemony Empire, to which most living things are allied to, is run by an alien species called the Essiel, which are basically giant clam-like bivalves! Asimov’s alien-less Foundation it is not. I enjoyed this diversity, even when at times the sheer numbers of different species and planets being juggled all at once meant serious concentration was required. Adrian has clearly done his background homework though – there’s a great timeline at the end of the book that goes into some detail.
All in all, this is a fast-paced science fiction story, with a broad canvas and big ideas throughout that doesn’t fail to deliver on the characterisation as well. I really liked it in its re-imagining of traditional science fiction elements into something resolutely contemporary: traditional Space Opera with a modern twist. As this is the first in a series, though, don’t expect everything to be resolved by the end. Nevertheless, this is a wonderfully imaginative and creative read that kept the pages turning.
See also Mark' Biilsborough's review and Ian's review of The Shards of Earth.
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