Reviewed by Stephen
The Scarab Path is the fifth in the Shadows of the Apt series and is the first book in a new chapter of the story. It is also very much the story of one character, who up to now, has been fairly adrift, pulled this way and that by events and was someone without any real purpose or goals. Perhaps that’s why until this book, Cheerwell (Che) Maker, has been my least favourite character. In some ways she is very much the everyman in this strange new world. Someone who at first is swept along by events she cannot avoid and once this realisation sinks in, she does try to help in her own unique way. Unfortunately, as is pointed out a couple of times in The Scarab Path, Che’s attempts to make things better often end with her being captured by the enemy and imprisoned, because she is a fairly ordinary person.
Despite all of the fantasy elements in the story, the solid core of Tchaikovsky’s books is his characters. Che was a college student when the war started, and although she was being coached by her uncle, she was by no means a master at anything. There are no fantasy tropes or character archetypes in the series and no shortcuts to greatness. All of the characters are just ordinary people living through extraordinary times who are forced into impossible situations. Sometimes they rise to the challenge and sometimes they fail, making their responses more realistic than the hero always winning at the most critical moment. Also Che does not become a master at anything overnight, but she is fundamentally changed by her experiences during the war, as any person would be in her shoes. There are expert fighters in the series, but these are people whose very core is that of a warrior and they have dedicated their life to becoming that, forgoing many other things and making sacrifices along to achieve that one goal. These are determined people who relish a fight and yet they are not a master of all weapons, magic, languages, history etc, because that is wholly unrealistic. Time and again when reading this book I was reminded of that level of realism because the story was very grounded despite the fantastic, which made it a much more enjoyable experience for me.
The story begins where the war with the Wasp Empire is temporarily over. By no means have their goals of conquest evaporated, rather they are put on hold while other more pressing internal matters are dealt with. The Empire is fractured, in dissent, and being led by a dangerous new Empress who many underestimate, including the jaded Wasp spymaster, Thalric. There is something rotten and terrifying at the heart of the Empire, and despite everything that has happened to him and how much his own kind have hurt him, Thalric returns to the bosom of his homeland hoping to find comfort among his own people. Instead he finds a place he doesn’t like and cannot tolerate. A nation ruled by a person he barely recognises and suddenly he is desperate to escape it again.
Forever seeking allies, and conscious that the war will resume at some point, Stenwold persuades his niece, Che, to travel to distant Khanaphes, a city only recently discovered by the Lowlands even though it has stood there for centuries on the edge of maps and has been hinted at in stories. Here, Che, is very much a stranger in a strange land, desperately trying to not only understand the local culture and customs, but also come to terms with recent events and tragedies that have caused some fundamental changes to her personality and abilities.
Khanaphes is a fascinating city, peopled by a race of terrified Beetles who live in the shadow of something unspeakable. Their silent Masters, absent Gods or long dead Kings and Queens, no one is really sure, but there eternal presence is felt on every street as fear of the Masters and their unspeakable wrath is palpable. This is just one element of what is a unique and multi-faceted society which, although was probably inspired by ancient Egypt, has become something else as Tchaikovsky has taken a few core concepts and build on them to make something completely his own. The city is one of intrigue and it rests upon many mysteries that Che tries to unravel because the Lowlands needs new allies in its war against the Empire.
This is a murder mystery story in some ways, as Che is not only trying to unravel the Khanaphir as a people, and the weird stories that fly around the city, but also uncover what happened to a colleague who disappeared. There are a number of layers to this book and I suspect on repeat reads I will get something new from it. There are a number of further complications and plot twists, and all of this intrigue is in stark contrast to the approach of the Scorpion-kinden who also have designs on the city of Khanaphes. They are brutal, driven barbarians, but not without an interesting culture of their own, and while the physical differences make it easy to tell the races apart, Tchaikovsky does not leave it there and take the lazy approach. Every part of their culture is built on a logical foundation and The Scarab Path gives us a unique insight into a race that has been on the periphery up to now.
How far would you be willing to go to save your home or your city? What would you be willing to do to protect it? Would you be willing to kill someone? And what laws or customs would you break to protect your fellow man? How much would you be willing to personally sacrifice for the greater good? These and other key questions form the crux of the story when several characters are pushed to their limit until their true nature is laid bare. In the comfort of your own home it is easy to make proclamations about what you would do in a tough situation, but only when the moment is upon you can a person know the truth. Without spoiling it, there is a host of interesting characters in The Scarab Path, both old and new, and each is pushed beyond all reasonable measures by events and what emerges out the other side is surprising and sometimes disturbing.
In some ways this book is a standalone novel as it is almost completely focused on one location which Tchaikovsky has not done before in the series. There are several interconnected points of view which keep the story moving along at a good pace and I devoured this pretty hefty tome in under a week. On the whole though this is Che’s story and my opinion of her has changed significantly, because by the end of the book I wanted to see more of her not less. The story was also unpredictable because going in I knew it marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story, but I had no idea of where it was going. By the end there are some clues as to where the series might go next, but I am not already mapping out events that must happen because they have been so heavily foreshadowed.
This is epic fantasy at its best. Gripping, original and multi-layered storytelling from a writer bursting with lots of fascinating ideas. The concept of insect-kinden makes the series unique, but it is Tchaikovsky’s ability to create realistic characters that you really care about that keeps me coming back for more. Other long running series can drag, and sometimes I have felt as if nothing happened in some books until the last hundred pages, but that is not the case here. Every book in the series is an important chapter in the story and I can’t wait to see what happens next, but also where in the world we next visit.