Sooner or later, Adrian Tchaikovsky is going to make me learn to spell his name. His output rivals Sanderson’s, but his willingness to explore more worlds, without the same meticulous detail that tends to bog down other authors, makes him fascinating to me. Children of Time was one of my favorite books of 2020, and while Shards of Earth doesn’t rival it, I found it compelling.
An exceptionally long ‘Prologue’ is the lynchpin between two characters that we will follow the rest of the book. It begins: “In the seventy-eighth year of the war, an Architect came to Berlenhof.”Tchaikovsky is generally of the immersion school of sci-fi; he will give you the details, but you need to assemble the pieces, and the Prologue is no exception. There’s a lot of ideas dropped here, but the main one is that the unfightable and unknowable Architects are remodeling life as they encounter it, and to date, no one has been able to establish contact. This moment in time will be pivotal, and both Solace and Idris Telemmier will play major roles. Solace is a soldier in the Heaven’s Sword Sorority, “the Parthenon. Humans, for a given value of human. The engineered warrior women who had been the Colonies’ shield ever since the fall of Earth.” Idris is a Colonial and part of the newest ‘weapon’ deployed against the Architects.
The Prologue is a meaty piece of sci-fi, and I confess, after investing in it, I wanted it to continue. It was a version of The Expanse, tv show), space battle style, with human players against crushing odds in a complicated and only partially understood universe. Unfortunately, as the Prologue ends we get foreshadowing that the investment in world-building is about to pay uncertain dividends: “Thirty-nine years after that, they woke Solace from cold storage one more time and said her warrior skills were needed.” Thus the epic space battle turns into a new book, that of a contentious crew of salvagers caught up in galactic events.
If you’ve followed me more than a few minutes, you know I’ve been on a sci-fi binge, and the crew-of-misfits in space seems to be one that I gravitate to. Between The Expanse (the show!!) and Suzanne Palmer’s Finder series, I’ve been enjoying the outer reaches of the galaxy, at least after humanity has solved that pesky distance-spanning/lifespan issue. So when I say the rest of the story felt largely familiar, I’m not meaning any insult–it’s a subgenre I like. I did hope that Tchaikovsky would bring some of his particular ingenuity, specifically aliens and lifeforms that felt alien, to his version of misfits-in-space. Sadly, it was only near the end where I felt a little bit of that mental frission when I encounter something unique.
The odd-ball crew of seven contains two alien lifeforms and members of humanity from different Colonies, giving a glimpse into potential alien and cultural weirdness, particularly with Kittering, “a crab-like alien,” and Medvig, “an intelligence distributed across a knot of cyborg roaches.”Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky is willing to break genre rules about red-shirts, which means that the reader may reach out and connect with the different characters, but that experience may be cut short. Considering that this is the first book in what is presumably a series/trilogy, willingness to remove characters felt like an impediment to reader engagement. Contrast with The Expanse, which created a diverse group of people for the reader/audience engagement and took books to remove traces of their influence if they were removed from the story.
I’ll also note there were a couple parts where I felt we were getting a little more fantasy than sci-fi, stretching the realm of genre rules (much like the proto-molecule), so take that for what you will. There’s a bit about space travel and the unseen which is supposed to stand in for light speed/warp/etc and occasionally seems more mystical than science (don’t argue with me: I know science at that level is mystical. Read this and you’ll see what I mean).
On the whole, it was engrossing, literally keeping my focus for four hours of a flight. That deserves a bonus all on it’s own.
Many, many thanks to both Netgalley and Orbit for the advance reader copy. Of course all opinions are my own–you ever know me to be a mouthpiece for someone else? Also, of course, all quotes are subject to change.