Thursday, November 30, 2023

Book of the Month: Shards of Earth

I'm just about scraping this book of the month review into this month. But I'm pleased with myself as I bought this book in Browsers Bookshop in Porthmadog during our  break in North Wales last week and have managed to read all 533 pages of it already.

This is the first big, fat science-fiction book I've read in several years. I used to read a few a year but since my reading animus unexpectedly evaporated during the pandemic I've barely touched any fiction. Getting thoroughly absorbed in this book felt like a slight reawakening.

I picked the book up because I recognised Adrian Tchaikovsky's name. I really enjoyed his book called Children of Time, which was a deep time epic charting the evolution of a sentient race of giant spiders after a terraforming experiment goes wrong. Among other things, it changed my feelings towards spiders. The follow up book, Children of Ruin, wasn't as good although this time it was octopuses evolving into a civilisation. I already liked octopuses, but there were a couple of other issues with the book as it wove in an alien life form that complicated the storyline. 

Shards of Earth is in a different future-verse. In this story, Earth has been destroyed by an entity called an Architect which turned the planet into an abstract sculpture. Thus began a war across known space between humans and their alien allies against the Architects who could appear without warning and destroy a planet, moon, asteroid, or anywhere else where humans were trying to live. 

The story focuses on an 'Int' (short for Intermediary) called Idris who is a human who underwent radical brain surgery to try and unlock psychic communication powers. Idris and his fellow Ints were able to eventually communicate with the Architects and ask them to stop killing humans - and they did, disappearing from the universe. 

And now it seems they are back, so it's up to Idris to save the human race again. He is helped on his quest by Solace, a genetically engineered warrior woman from the Parthenon sisterhood and the crew of the spaceship he had been working on as a deep space pilot. The story is well-paced, moving quickly across several interesting locations for fights, heists and daring escapes. 

This is the first book in a trilogy called The Final Architecture (which even has its own Wikipedia page already!). However, even though it's the first of three, the story does have a conclusion and could be read as a stand alone. I am keen to find out what happens next but this book doesn't end with all the crew in peril or anything really annoying like that. 

Tchaikovsky populates this universe with some interesting, and inscrutable, alien races. I like the way he leaves some of those races ineffable and hard to understand. In a weird way that felt realistic and kept the aliens alien. 

He also captures tensions between ordinary humans who both fear and need the genetically engineered humans of the Parthenon, and the Partheni who have become a bit isolated and don't really understand ordinary humans any more. The all-female soldier army is clearly based on the Amazons of old legends, although there was a touch of the Space Marines from the Warhammer universe alongside the female Martian soldier Bobbi, in The Expanse books. There is an interesting debate at one point over the ethics of genetic engineering that captured the nuance of what might be lost by smoothing out weaknesses in the human genome, but it's kept short and doesn't derail or overshadow the story.

Another race linked to humans are the machine intelligences known as Hivers. They were created by humans but subsequently gained their autonomy. They are formed of several tiny machines that aggregate to form disparate entities before reverting back into the general swarm of tiny robots. Conceptually, they were much more interesting than the average robot or android. I felt they were the best machine characters I've read about outside of the Culture novels by Iain M Banks. 

Amidst all the chaos and dread of the return of the Architects there are also some moments of warmth and humour. One line, delivered by a Hiver character was so acidly sarcastic it actually made me laugh out loud while reading it, while there were several other interchanges that made me smile. 

So, at some point, I will be getting book two in the series and hopefully it will hook me in to read it just as quickly. Keep an eye out for a future blog post review of it!

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