Fiction Reviews

Children of Ruin

(2019) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Macmillan, £8.99, pbk, 565pp, ISBN 978-1-509-86585-7


This the follow up to 2015’s Clarke Award winning Children of Time, which took an inventive look at man’s legacy after we all but destroyed ourselves in a nuclear holocaust.  Children of Ruin carries on the theme in a new setting, with some familiar faces and a new system of worlds to play in.

Spoiler alert!  In Children of Time, an arkship travels to a system already visited by a ship from the ‘Old Empire’, which has terraformed a world – Kern’s World, and accelerated the development of Earth species, ostensibly so that when the colonists arrive they’ll have a semi-sentient workforce to exploit.  The plan goes wrong, though, and instead of clever monkeys the arkship finds superbright spiders.  The novel explores how the spiders develop and how the humans who find them come to terms with their pristine world not being quite so empty and waiting as they’d thought.  This story is self-contained, but leads naturally into Children of Ruin.

In Children of Ruin, the humans and the Portids travel to another system where another terraforming project has been unravelling.  Things have not gone according to plan here either, and they are greeted by fleets of hostile octopuses.  They inhabit – or used to – the planet Damascus, which was second choice for the terraformers.  The inner planet – Nod – came with an unexpected problem: alien life.  Life with the ability to infect and transform!

Just like the first book, Children of Ruin explores the development of a whole new species (technically two here: three if you include the human-AI gestalt Kern) and then charts the human’s stumbling attempts to come to terms with them. There’s a twist at the end too which makes the whole series massively satisfying.

It's easy to see why the first book won awards – it is well written, thoughtful and with convincing science artfully presented. It has an originality, too, that sets it apart. I can’t recall a writer getting in the heads of an alien species quite as convincingly as Tchaikovsky does here, and so I was looking forward to seeing him work on another species in Children of Ruin.  Here, though, the focus is more on the humans who crash land on Nod and those who follow them from Kern’s World – perhaps because the octopuses are much more alien in thought and language to the Portids.  They communicate with colour and movement and rapidly develop a language which the humans find hard to follow.  In the end, though, communication – and mutual understanding – are vital to avoid disaster.

If I’ve a criticism it’s that I didn’t enjoy Children of Ruin as much as its predecessor, but that may be because it is in part a retread of that first book. Multiple points of view from multiple different species add to the complexity, too, which prevents this from being a straightforward read.  New readers could pick up the series at this point without too much difficulty – what you’ll need to know in terms of background is well explained - but I’d suggest diving in with the first book - Children of Time – anyway. Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

Update: The Children of Ruin won the 2020 BSFA Award for 'Best Novel'.


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