Adrian Tchaikovsky has an immense imagination, and the scope of Shards of Earth gives it vast space. Literally vast since the novel and its strange crew of salvagers moves from one planetary system to another through the terrifying bent space-time depths known as unspace in what seem to be moments. But those moments are pure hell for the pilot Idris, one of a surgically altered group of humans with mysterious mental abilities. Those abilities enabled the Intermediaries or Ints, as they’re called, to divert the worst destructive power the universe has ever known. That is the unknowable race referred to as the Architects.
Their moon-size ships appear suddenly over planets which are then turned inside out, destroying all inhabitants. The distinctive peeled-apart remains in complex designs inspired the name, but nothing else is known about them. Idris found that he and others like him, if they were lucky enough to survive their re-engineering, had a unique ability to perceive the mysterious patterns that drew the Architects to certain planets and even to enter their minds. Somehow that ability caused these enemies to vanish, perhaps because they simply recognized humans as having abilities resembling their own. No one is sure.
Decades after their disappearance, Idris is part of a salvage crew on the Vulture God with a wonderfully eclectic mix of different species and often abrasive yet witty personalities who have formed their own style of family. When searching for a lost ship to salvage, they make a terrible discovery. The ship Oumaru bears all the marks of destruction by the Architects.
How can the crew deal with this carved-up graveyard ship without setting off alarms around the universe that the Architects have returned? It’s not long before the Vulture God and its crew are pursued by an assortment of powerful and interestingly villainous members of multiple species, all determined to seize a mysterious set of objects aboard the destroyed vessel.
Shards of Earth is the first volume of a series, and Tchaikovsky takes his time to create a complex universe. He describes multiple worlds including several settled by humans of their Polyaspora and many dominated by strange species that give free play to the author’s imagination.
There are the Hivers, hive mind insects that make themselves more relatable to humans by concealing their swarms within almost humanoid frames. There are the Hannilambra, a crab-like species especially good at commercial intricacies, and the Tothiat, a symbiotic combination of a lobster-like entity that attaches to humans and other species. The resultant combination produces immensely strong symbionts with incredible powers of healing and resilience that make them extremely hard to knock out of action.
The Partheni are a race of vat-grown women that comprise an especially powerful military force, and the Essiel, giant clam-like creatures who have managed to build an alien empire including many human subjects who worship them as divine. To keep all this straight, Shards of Earth includes an extensive glossary with lists of worlds, characters, species and a timeline tracing the major events of space settlement and the Architects war down to the moment the story begins.
All of this takes a lot of descriptive background, and the narrative has something of a stop-start feel as one new world and species after another are introduced. Yet it is well handled and consistently interesting as the story settles into its focus on Idris and a Partheni agent named Solace. She has an assignment to lure Idris into the service of her military society that has an uneasy alliance with the human worlds. Solace and Idris have an interesting back story that dates to the time of the Architects War when Solace helped bring Idris through the terrible toll that his work as an Int confronting the vast minds of Architects took on him.
That old bond is rekindled as Solace tries to find a place within the ever suspicious crew of the Vulture God. This three-way dynamic between Solace, Idris and the Vulture crew is really the most interesting part of the story for me. The stakes inherent in their ability to work together are constantly raised as the Vulture dodges one crisis after another. Meanwhile the settled worlds struggle with each other as they try to figure out if the Architects might really come back to finish them all off.
The multiple levels of this complex story come together quite well and work toward an exciting climax, but for me the center of the story is the human one centered around Idris and the choices he must make.
After all the chases and shoot-outs and captivities, it is the mind of Idris that shines through in all his tortured insight and glimpses of the returning Architects. Tchaikovsky’s writing probes the depths of his mental states as he describes a past encounter with the vast mind of an Architect.
“He folded himself small, like a letter, like a needle, like an idea, and pried his mind into that incandescent mass of angry thought. And it was angry. It did not know him, did not know any of them, yet it perceived an environment that was resisting it. Making its life difficult, impeding the creation of its apocalyptic art form. Idris screamed, entering the outer reaches of the Architect’s consciousness as though he was entering the photosphere of a star.”Shards of Earth, Kindle edition (advance review copy), Location 5049
The forays into the minds of Architects during the war exacted a terrible price on Idris’ mind and body. Several of the other Intermediaries died under the withering stress, but he survived. Yet his role as a pilot through unspace also tears into him each time he finds himself alone in that in-between world where the rest of reality falls away. Solace renews her bond with Idris as one of the few who can literally hold him together during his excruciating experiences. She is caught between her role as an agent assigned the task of drawing him into the Partheni fold and her human sympathy and affection for him as she guides him through his torment.
Shards of Earth is a rich and wonderful book, the start of a series that promises to be a landmark of space adventure. Besides the excitement of its many battles, of wits as well as spaceships, it describes, as few other books have, the human toll of altered minds and lives spent in war and travel among star systems.
Thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for an advance review copy for an honest review.