Things begin to slow down some in Blood of the Mantis (2009). The third book in the SHADOWS OF THE APT series is the smallest, and yet took the longest for me to read. Adrian Tchaikovsky maintains the same level of writing established in the first two, but seems to be struggling a bit with middle-book syndrome. The events in book 3 are too important to completely leave out of the story, it’s too long to be split between other books, and feels a little wanting after the first two books’ onslaught of awesomeness.
Blood of the Mantis is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just not as good as the first two. It had some seriously high standards to meet after Dragonfly Falling. Dragonfly Falling blew me away and is likely to be a contender for my favorite book this year. I think my perspective might be a little skewed as well. I’ve been reading these one right after the other, so the differences between the two are immediately apparent to me, possibly making my judgment a little unfair. With the previous two so fresh in my mind, I simply can’t help making comparisons.
The plot is a continuation of what is set in motion in the previous books, and Blood of the Mantis doesn’t have an strong subplot of its own. The characters are still hunting the ShadowBox, and Stenwold is still dealing with political intrigue in Collegium and Sarn while trying to rally an increasingly unlikely Lowland alliance. The character development that was so amazing in both the previous books is almost nonexistent here. A few side characters get a little more attention, but nothing develops to the level of the previous books.
Tchaikovsky does take the reader to some new places. We get to see the lands around the Exalsee, and the potpourri of kinden that inhabit that area. I did enjoy the notion that SHADOWS OF THE APT will have a much larger geographical playground. The first two books never talked much about anything beyond the Spiderlands. Blood of the Mantis is the first to take the story into those other foreign lands.
Tchaikovsky has set himself up with a beautiful and amazing world to play in. The variety of races and characters at his disposal is limitless. Blood of the Mantis may be a bit of a stumble in the series, but it’s a very small stumble. I’m very excited for book 4, and I get the feeling my reservations about Blood of the Mantis will be quickly forgotten.
After Dragonfly Falling, I was pretty excited for the next instalment in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s SHADOWS OF THE APT series — and Blood of the Mantis didn’t disappoint. In this third book, Tchaikovsky sends Cheerwell and Nero to the city of Solarno, where they meet the fly-kinden pilot Taki as they resist the Wasp Empire’s unquenchable thirst for conquest. Meanwhile, Thalric, Tynisa, Tisamon, and Achaeos are off hunting the Shadow Box in Jerez, a magical artifact of great, dark power. While Justin doesn’t seem to like Blood of the Mantis quite as much, I personally thought it was the best book in the series so far.
One of the first things that I noticed was the structure of Blood of the Mantis: it begins in media res, with the first chapter two months ahead of the next few. Tchaikovsky does something similar later on in the novel as well. I know I noted that the structure of book one wasn’t quite to my satisfaction, but what’s changed with Blood of the Mantis is simply that I’m now more familiar with Tchaikovsky’s world and better situated to understand what’s going on plot-wise, whereas this wasn’t quite true in Empire of Black and Gold. As a result, the temporal differences in Blood of the Mantis worked perfectly for me both times because Tchaikovsky is able to create suspense and drama with this technique; there was some excitement to look forward to even as the action slowed a little, and that kept me turning pages.
I’d like to add here that as Justin noted in his review, Blood of the Mantis has slowed down significantly compared with the earlier books. While I agree with him completely, I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing: the characters combined with some other factors more than make up for a slower book. For me, Blood of the Mantis is all about the characters; Tchaikovsky brings them to the forefront and forces us to confront their existential crises: will Totho return to Collegium or will he cast his lot in with Colonel-Auxilian Drephos and the Wasp Empire? Will Thalric turn traitor once more and betray Stenworld or remain exiled from the Empire? When Tchaikovsky lets us ask these questions, he brings out a level of internal conflict previously almost nonexistent in SHADOWS OF THE APT. By the end of Blood of the Mantis, I felt like I knew all the characters intimately and understood their psychologies. Not only did this character-building add a new level of depth and complexity to the series, it more than made up for the weak subplots and lack of action, which helped Blood of the Mantis form a welcome contrast with its action-packed predecessors.
One final aspect of Blood of the Mantis that I enjoyed was Tchaikovsky’s scope. By sending his characters on quests in distant lands, he exposes his readers to new cultures, new insect-kinden, new ways of thinking, and of course, new factions in politics. Having finished book four as of this writing, I can also say Blood of the Mantis does a fantastic job setting up its successor and expanding the scope of the series. Throughout Blood of the Mantis, it’s just fascinating to meet all the new people in Tchaikovsky’s world, so if you’ve read book two — don’t stop there! Perhaps the only thing I’m not sure about yet is what purpose the [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILER] beetle-kinden under Lake Limnia near Jerez [END SPOILER] serve. Hopefully we’ll find out in the next few novels. Onward toward book ten we march!