The war between the Wasp Empire and the Lowlands has reached an uneasy truce following the death of the emperor and accession of the Wasps’ first ever Empress, Seda. Thalric finds himself playing the role of Royal Consort but quickly finds out that Seda is a sadistic and crazed woman. Taking the opportunity to put distance between himself and the Empress, Thalric accepts the role of ambassador to the far-off city of Khanaphes. Also journeying to Khanaphes are Cheerwell Maker, acting as the ambassador for the city of Collegium and the head of the Iron Fist trading consortium hoping to establish new links with Khanaphes. At first, Khanaphes seems like a slightly backward city, avoiding modern technology because the mysterious ruling ‘Masters’ do not approve. Yet all is not as it seems and the secret of the Masters is only one of many strange things that draw Thalric, Cheerwell and their companions into a tangled web from which they may be lucky to escape alive.
‘The Scarab Path’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky is the fifth book in his ‘Shadows Of The Apt’ series. At the end of book four, ‘Salute The Dark’, the first part of the story arc, the battle between the Wasp Empire and the Lowlands is brought to a conclusion so that ‘The Scarab Path’ feels like a fresh start. The number of characters we follow is greatly reduced and it predominantly follows just Cheerwell and Thalric, although an old friend is also re-introduced. The action is largely focused in just one place, which for me was a welcome change from the previous books which had a tendency to jump around a bit. I think the use of fewer main characters and locations made the story easier to follow and allowed for more depth in terms of both plot and character development. The resulting story meant I was always eager to find out what happened next and how the mysteries would be resolved.
Tchaikovsky’s previous books have been seriously battle-heavy and the battle scenes are definitely some of his strongest work, but ‘The Scarab Path’ takes the emphasis away from the fighting and moves it more to the characters and a central mystery story. There is still plenty of action, too, but it definitely takes second place in this book.
The city of Khanaphes is beautifully imagined, with vivid descriptions provided right through the book. It clearly has influences rooted in Ancient Egypt, with stone walls covered in pictographs and even a pyramid being central architectural points. It is a city ruled by the Masters, who nobody ever sees, yet whose wishes are communicated by the Ministers of the city. We are kept guessing about the Masters, until very close to the end of the book, never sure if they really exist and if they do, what kind of creatures they are. Along with a rash of disappearances, strange dreams and unusual deaths, the Masters make up the central mystery story which encourages the reader to try and solve certain aspects of it, something I thought worked really well.
There is a secondary plot involving the Empire and a group of desert-dwelling Scorpion-kinden, which is the first time the readers have really been introduced to Scorpion-kinden. They have some interesting Arts (the magics each race have) including the ability to speak with animals and are a fierce group of warriors ruled by the one who proves themselves the strongest and most cunning. It does set up some pretty epic battle scenes for later in the book but, for the most part, it didn’t really add anything for me, other than a mild curiosity about the characteristics of the Scorpion-kinden. It’s not that it was a badly written section, I just found the main Thalric/Cheerwell plot in Khanaphes much more engaging and would have been happy focusing on that instead.
‘The Scarab Path’ is one of my favourite ‘Shadows Of The Apt’ books so far. It is refreshing to concentrate on something other than the Wasp-Lowlands battles, the characters are developed further, the setting is imaginative and the story is engaging. A good move from Tchaikovsky, setting up a promising new chapter in the ‘Shadows Of The Apt’ series.
(pub: TOR-UK/PanMacmillan. 692 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK), $ 9.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-330-51145-2)
check out website: www.panmacmillan.com