The Bear and the Serpent (2017), an epic shapeshifter fantasy set in a Bronze Age type of era, is the sequel to 2016’s The Tiger and the Wolf. It follows the continuing adventures of a young woman named Maniye, who has an unusual dual heritage that allows her to instantly shapeshift into Wolf (her father’s people) and Tiger (her mother’s). Now Maniye has been gifted a third form by the gods, called a Champion: a massive wolf/tiger/bear hybrid creature that’s a serious threat in battle. Maniye has gathered a warband of Wolves around her, those who didn’t fit well in the rigid clan structure of their Wolf tribe. She and her Wolf group, along with a few other stray shapeshifters, are following Asmander of the River Lord (crocodile) people as he takes them south to help his side in a conflict for the crown of the River Lords. A twin brother and sister, childhood friends of Asmander, both want to rule the River Lords as their “Kasra,” and both have their supporters, including members of the Serpent priesthood. Conspiracies are everywhere they turn, and Maniye and her band of misfit Wolves soon find themselves the reluctant guardians of one of the two claimants to the throne, who is more of a weak boy than a confident potential ruler.
But a worse danger threatens: an ancient danger has arrived from across the sea, the “soulless” Plague People who speak no recognizable language and use weapons that are unrecognizable to the people of this land. The Plague People’s very presence drives the shapeshifters to madness: loss of their shapeshifting abilities and their power of reason. The scope of the ECHOES OF THE FALL series broadens in The Bear and the Serpent, as Maniye’s point of view alternates with that of Lord Thunder, a Bear shapeshifter who Maniye met in the first book. Lord Thunder finds himself charged by his mother, the leader of the Bear clan, with pulling all of the warring factions and peoples in the north together to combat this new threat. It’s not a role he’s thrilled about trying to take on, but there’s no gainsaying Mama Bear.
Adrian Tchaikovsky is a talented author who excels at world-building. The southern lands, where Maniye travels with Asmander and her Wolf band, has a distinctly different culture from the north, the setting of the first book. The south is comparable to Central America and its native cultures, while the north echoes Alaskan or Canadian native cultures. While the south has a more highly developed and sophisticated civilization, both are equally brutal in their different ways. The south is just more sneaky about it.
The plot is a bit of a slow burn, especially in the first third. I set The Bear and the Serpent aside several times to go read other books that weren’t quite so demanding of my time (and attention). But once I got into it, it was truly fascinating ― even better than the first book, The Tiger and the Wolf. The plot is more complex, with several enjoyable twists and turns that caught me by surprise. There are several interesting new characters, and characters familiar from the first book continue develop new depths. A star-crossed love interest for Lord Thunder causes him to rethink assumptions, and Tchaikovsky sensitively addresses the restricted role of women in her clan and the lack of choices she has had in her life. Several chapters focus on Venat, a (Komodo) Dragon shapeshifter who finds that his travels and experiences have made him dissatisfied with the simpler life of fighting, looting, and lording it over other Dragons that once seemed like the pinnacle of desirability to him.
The Bear and the Serpent is a fairly challenging read that requires the reader’s attention. There are a whole host of characters for the reader to keep track of; these books would have benefitted from a glossary to help remind the reader of particular characters and their shapeshifting animal. The viewpoint also frequently shifts between different characters. The plot primarily follows Maniye and Lord Thunder, but Tchaikovsky occasionally jumps in to the heads of any number of other characters.
There are several hints that the Plague People may be of the moth or wasp people from Tchaikovsky’s SHADOWS OF THE APT series, so fans of that series may want to check this one out. It seems clear that they’re a more technologically advanced civilization than the shapeshifters on this continent, but their perceived soullessness ― which might be just because they aren’t shapeshifters ― and why they cause near-instantaneous loss of power for shapeshifting people, are questions left to be answered in the upcoming third book, The Hyena and the Hawk, due to be published in February 2018. This series has won my heart and interest, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in this ECHOES OF THE FALL series.