The (to me) most unexpected entry on theis year’s Hugo Award Best Novella Finalists list was this book by prolific and well-loved author Adrian Tchaikovsky. I had never read anything by him, atlhough I’ve heart plenty of recommendations for his Shadows of the Apt series as well as the newer Children of Time Duology, which I’m very much looking forward to. My high expectations weren’t met with this novella but I also didn’t dislike it.
by Adrian Tchakovsky
Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook: 204 pages
My rating: 6/10
Opening line: Nobody climbed the mountain beyond the war-shrine.
In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.
Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.
But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).
But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon…
This is one of those neat books that are really science fiction but, to some of its characters, work like a fantasy novel. The story is told through dual perspectives, that of Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the headstrong fourth princess of Lannesite, and Nyr Illim Tevitch, a human anthropoligist who spends most of his time in a sort of cryo-sleep, only waking up to write down whatever cultural changes of note the inhabitants have to offer for his reasearch. His colleagues have long left the planet, leaving him all alone to complete this mission of knowledge. When a “demon” is threatening some villages on the planet, Lynesse takes matters into her own hand and decides to climb up the mountain to the tower of the Elder Nyrgoth and ask for his help. As he has once helped her ancestor in a battle against an evil sorcerer many years ago…
The idea behind this set-up is not new, by any means, but that doesn’t have to automatically make this a boring story. In fact, Tchaikovsky offers plenty of cool aspects that make reading this worthwhile. My favorite part was probably the DCS – Dissociative Cognition System – which is built into Nyr (who has many augments, not least amon them a pair of horns!) and which lets him block all emotions in order to make the most rational decision for whatever situation he is in. Except those emotions don’t evaporate, he can only hold them back for a while, but needs to eventually let them out. As you can imagine, collecting a bunch of (usually negative) feelings, only to feel them all at once, is not very pleasant. Especially considering how incredibly depressed Nyr is and how little purpose he sees in this strange half-life he leads.
In order for there to be a story at all, he of course agrees to accompany Lyn and her companion Esha, to confront this “demon” of hers, fully suspecting either a natural disease or some old tech that was left over from when humans colonized the planet in the first place. He is ignoring the Prime Directive (it has a different name here) because, hey, if he’s the loneliest anthropoligst in the world, why not also be the worst? And so off they go, stopping in this village or that, collecting info on the demon, and going to kill it once and for all.
What didn’t work for me, or rather what I found surprising and disappointing alike, was the shallow characterization. Except for Nyr, who gets a personality (albeit a sad and depressed one), there wasn’t any effort put into anyone else’s character. Lyn’s one characteristic is that she has defied her mother in order to go on this quest and that’s it. Esha is the wise-ish companion but we never get to know her. And later on, another man joins the cast, who at least gets an interesting backstory but no more.
The same lack of focus can be found in the world buliding for the “fantasy” side of this story. Lannesite could have been described a little more, or any part of this world really, in order to make us care about what happens to its people. The way it is, it’s just generic fantasy land without any depth or lore or cool mythology. There are a few moments where Nyr explains something, telling the locals how it’s not magic, but science, and because of language barriers and translation problems, all they hear is “magic” and “sorcery” after all. I found that part really neat but it doesn’t make up for the lack of proper wold building. The sci-fi half of the novel fared much better, with a little info on how Nyr came to be here, what his job was meant to be, and what happened to Earth and us humans. I have no gripes there, except that it makes the fantasy part feel all the more like an unloved stepchild.
A question of taste, surely, but another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the writing style. Whether we were in Lyn or Nyr’s narrative, apart from the change in POV (Lyn is third person, Nyr first person), there wasn’t much difference in how events were described. Sure, Nyr uses words that Lyn doesn’t know, such as “anthropoligist” or “drone” but I think the contrast between the sci-fi and the fantasy sides of this tale should have been more visible, also in the writing. I never felt like the story was truly flowing, although I can’t put my finger on why. The style and I just didn’t gel.
The plot is, unfortunately, quite thin. Very little happens and despite a pretty cool ending, most of it was predictable. The book’s strongest aspect is surely the character of Nyr, how he handles his complicated emotions, the loneliness, the lack of purpose, the not knowing of what’s to come. Otherwise, there wasn’t much here to keep my interest and I’ll probably have forgotten most of this story in a copule of weeks. But I also didn’t actively dislike it. It was fine.
I certainly hope Tchaikovsky’s novel-length works do better in terms of characters (especailly female ones, come on!) and world building.
MY RATING: 6/10 – Good