Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Book Review
Published by: Tor
Genre: sci-fi space opera
Review Copy: Courtesy of NetGalley
Shards of Earth is Adrian Tchaikovsky’s first bona fide attempt at a space opera, the opening to his Final Architecture trilogy, and one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year. Tchaikovsky’s ambitions for this series are made clear early on—Shards opens with a story of cosmic struggle against an enemy so vast, even humanity’s most advanced weaponry does no more than pinprick them. The Architects are “moon-sized entities that can reshape populated planets and ships” (as per the Glossary) into crystalline sculptures of staggering and repulsive beauty. These cosmic leviathans are utterly unaware of the uncountable lives snuffed out in the process of the transformation they induce.
The first world targeted by these staggering intelligences is Earth; and so Tchaikovksy’s future humanity is orphaned from its cradle, which has turned into little more than a confederation loosely held by multiple factions under the name “Hugh” (or Council of Human Interests) by the time the crux of the narrative picks up. Forty years have passed since Intermediary Idris and two of his “siblings” at last managed to make contact with one of the Architects and so buy humanity a reprieve. The very same Idris, working now as navigator atop a shabby vessel by the name of the Vulture God, makes the deep-space discovery of a vessel that has gone through the same crystallization process as so many of humanity’s central worlds did, in that great war. The discovery sets off a series of events that affect, as you’ll imagine, forces far outside the Vulture’s crew.
While this is an overt simplification of one main thread of the narrative, Tchaikovsky tells a far more intricate story. By the point the Vulture makes its discovery, the ship’s crew has picked up a new recruit—point of view character Solace, a Myrmidon Executor of the Partheni, the genetically engineered sisterhood of humanity, battle angels sworn to the defence of human space and the most militarily advanced strand of humankind. The nation of Parthenon is “composed of parthenogenetically grown women,” who are considered by their creator to be “an ideal version of humanity”. For that very reason, they are feared by much of humanity, especially the Nativists and their extremist faction, the Betrayed. During the great war, all of humanity was held together by the common threat of the Architects; forty years later, fractures between the two strands of humanity have widened to the point that tensions might give way to open war at the least provocation. The Parthenon’s one great disadvantage? They lack Intermediaries of their own, those capable of travelling outside the Throughways and into deep space at a faster-than-light speed. Solace has a history with Idris from all the way back in the war, when the Int was her responsibility to look after—pulled into active duty from cryosleep, she’s been sent to make Idris an offer, one he may not be able to refuse. Here’s the essence of Parthenon in Solace’s own words:
“I know that in the Colonies they say a lot of things about my people. I’ve seen the Hugh propaganda too. We’re warmongers, we’re man-haters, we’re unnatural, born in a lab, indoctrinated. Programmed like machines. All that, I’ve heard. And nobody remembers we died for the Colonies, above a hundred worlds, during the war. We were the line.” And the softer edges of her voice were ablating off, revealing only steel beneath. Kris belatedly remembered this wasn’t just third-generation ancestral pride; Solace had been there. She had fought in the war, faced the Architects.
“We were the shield and sword of the Colonies,” the Partheni went on. And then, when the war was over, you started asking why we had to keep on being different to you. Why couldn’t we just come back and be your wives and daughters again? You really think we quit Hugh because we had some designs on your planets? Because we wanted to line all your menfolk up against a wall, and make everyone else like us? We left because you hated us and would have used your laws to break us if we’d stayed. … All we ever did was put our lives on the line for you. And you still hate us for it.”
After a quote like this, I bet at least a few of you know if Shards of Earth will work for you.
But you see, I haven’t even mentioned the FTL travel. In true space opera fashion, it is a common occurrence. Tchaikovsky uses the concept of “unspace” to have the races of his galaxy cut through vast spaces; staying awake during voyages through unspace holds dangers all its own, for anyone who has braved it feels an uncanny presence, seeking, searching to close the distance. There’s something of Warhammer 40k’s Warp there, something Lovecraftian, too—presented in such a way as to be novel rather than tired. The explanations that this is a shared experience triggered by the staggering alone-ness at play here, hallucinogenic in nature, rings very false indeed:
…the fact that everyone who came out of unspace sane and hale reported the same ‘delusion’ was not a comfort. Because Kris couldn’t stop thinking, surely there was only one logical explanation to everyone having the same experience . . . That, despite everything, there really was something out there. Unspace had a single and inimitable denizen, and she was trapped in here with it.
Humanity is far from alone—rather, it is part of a bustling galactic community. In addition to the strands of humanity under Hugh and Parthenon control, there’s the Hegemony, a much older civilization controlled by the inscrutable Essiel, possessing the knowledge to protect worlds from the Architects’ transformative touch. The Essiel seek to expand their control over humanity but are unwilling to do so through their strength in arms, electing to persuade through the promise of safety and harmony. We never see a proper Essiel-controlled world, but the Hegemony’s culture promises to be a starkly different one compared with the bustling, staggeringly multitude humanity has to offer.
There’s also the Hivers, autonomous distributed intelligences created by humanity but now with distinct goals and interests of their own; the unkillable killing machines that are the Tothiat; the crab-like Hannilambra aliens, and several others I won’t get further into. I reserve a special place for the Originators, however, an ancient space-faring race responsible for the Throughways, fascinating artifacts, and ruins whose every mention fed me serious nostalgia from my adventuring days aboard Mass Effect’s Normandy. Plenty of that if you’re a space opera fan – Shards of Earth recalls the very best of the genre, makes familiar tropes fresh anew, and falls in nicely next to other works by the author. I’ve seen Tchaikovsky deal with some of the themes touched in Shards of Earth before – vast intelligences that find it difficult even to acknowledge human existence reared their head in The Doors of Eden. Further, both the dangers of capitalism pushed to eleven, as well as the possibility of distributed intelligence networks growing far more complex than intended and acquiring personhood made for the thesis statement of Dogs of War.
Its characters are ridiculously easy to root for. In addition to Idris and Solace, we’ve got Kris Almier, a lawyer as deadly with a knife as she is with her words; Olli Timo, a mechanic and specialist whose ingenious use of robotics allows her to overcome her physical disabilities, and the Vulture God’s captain, Rollo Rostand, whose dialect has a number of peculiarities which define spacer speech in ways that read across as a natural drift away from our own language. There are a few others—an alien, a Hiver—and the crew dynamics between them all are exactly what you’d hope they would be. They feel like a family, even when they’re at each other’s throats. Whether the focus is on Olli and Solace’s very different understandings of what the Partheni way of life entails, the bond between Solace and Idris, neither of whom look to have aged since the days of the Architect war forty years ago, or Kris’s clever tongue-lashing, these characters work together perfectly. If you grew up with Star Wars or Star Trek, they’ll feel like home, reminiscent of the crews of the Millenium Falcon and the Enterprise.
The dangers of this galaxy go far beyond the civilization-ending threat of the Architects. From a rogue Essiel to a nobleman from one of humanity’s most prosperous worlds to a secretive operator of Hugh’s Intelligence Service, “Mordant House”—the threats to the Vulture God’s crew are numerous and multifaceted. Action scenes are written with a precision I envy, often shock with the suddenness and brutality, and engender in the reader a sense of danger for everyone involved—I recall a point early on when I realized just how high the stakes are, and the words that made me do a double take are still burned into my mind.
The environs, the different planets the crew is thrust between, the majestic ships and decrepit space stations, are all memorable. Here is an excellent description that showcases some of my favourite features of Tchaikovsky’s writing:
Jericho was the last habitable world to be found by explorers from Earth, before there was no longer an Earth to be from. A survey team exploring a dead-end Throughway burst into a virgin system. They found a planet a little closer than Earth to a sun a little cooler than Earth’s. Then they found a biosphere crammed full of riotous life whose biochemistry overlapped with Earth by at least forty per cent. An Eden! surveyors crowed. Then the planet’s biochemistry ate two of the landing party and they quickly revised their estimate to A monstrous death world! But there were still scientific grants for that, and a permanent research presence was established only months before an Architect appeared over the skies of Earth. That research team was intended to be the sole presence on Jericho: an opportunity to conduct pure research into a thriving alien ecology, untouched by humanity save the luckless surveyors.
Then Earth fell, the Polyaspora began, and Jericho received its shipments of refugees – same as everywhere else. Establishing a colony on-planet was not the nature-red-intooth-and-claw experience everyone had expected. Desperate humans in need of a home could tooth-and-claw right back, and twice as hard.
The clarity of description, the wry wit—I can’t describe to you how many times I’ve cackled hysterically at some passage or another in Shards of Earth.
Allow me to point out, also, that I love books that pack a Glossary at the end. This one has a timeline slapped at the back, which makes for some encyclopaedical reading, preferably after you’ve finished the novel itself. I loved getting most of this information through dialogue, description and voice; seeing it then presented chronologically makes for an excellent reference tool for later.
Adrian Tchaikovsky shows a craftsman’s care and a visionary’s imagination in constructing the universe, and does so while rounding up the first part of this trilogy in such a way as to make of it a gratifying experience that doesn’t frustrate you to no end for not having the second book immediately at hand. You should get this one if you love the genre. If you’re a newcomer, curious about space opera – this is a great title to start your interstellar journey with!