Tchaikovsky goes in big in his prologue as he talks about a moon-sized eldritch space horror, an Architect, emerging from unspace, and giant fleets in which more than one alien race is present, and a main character named Solace, who is part of a genetically designed soldier sect called the Parthenon, who with her Myrmidon sisters watches as the giant space horror is beaten back. Looking at the connotations that all of these names evoke, Tchaikovsky clearly wanted to give everything a larger-than-life quality. Planet-sized horrors and tragedies and militaristic, Spartan warrior amazons, in spaaaace.
Skip fifty years, and we find Solace and others as part of a motley crew aboard a shabby salvage ship and the rest of the novel follows their adventure as they make a shocking discovery about the Architects and are then hassled by gangsters, foreign agents and a fantastic alien antagonist. I always like reading these found-family situations on rusty ships and it didn’t take me long to develop a fondness for this lot. Now, I haven’t read many of Tchaikovsky’s novels, but in comparison with Children of Time (2015), I’d say that he has greatly improved in writing human characters. In that earlier book, the human characters stood out as a weakness of the book as a whole, but not so in Shards of Earth.
It is best not to expect deep explorations of themes in this novel. All focus is on plot and universe-building, and offers little food for thought about the deeper mysteries of human existence. Looking at the tropes, much of this book offers very similar things to what other series and properties have offered, like the Mass Effect games (from what I’ve heard), Farscape, and even some of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space and James SA Corey’s Expanse series can be found in here. Combine the crew of the Rocinante (Expanse) with the inhibitor threat (Revelation Space), and put it in a baroque and bombastic space opera setting, bada-bing bada-boom. But this could also be a positive point for you, if you like these series. Shards of Earth offers very similar things, but has the energy and imagination to stand on its own feet.
Getting our first glimpse of this universe was great fun and I would love to learn more about all the alien species and the political dances between them. What ultimately makes this book stand out from all the other generic space opera series is the inclusion of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror dimension, unspace, that doubles as the hyperspace faster-than-light insert, and it is interesting to see how the other alien races deal with this as well, as a shared galactic problem for every civilization to find an answer to. This ties into a theme of shared identity that pops up a lot in the story. Almost every race has this shared problem, but as soon as the problem fades into the distance, you see the political splintering and fighting over influence and power. The cosmic horror is the great “other” and symbol of death, and when that loses power, the “other” gets shifted to other objects.
The crew of the Vulture God is a counterpoint to this and a microcosm of that diverse galactic situation. And some characters, like Idris, are still alone in all of this, and his loneliness is then tied back into the cosmic horror element. Idris is the locus where the personal and the galactic fold into each other, but instead of a Luke Skywalker he is the most vulnerable person of all.
And it is all so well executed. The alien races are fascinating. The pacing of action, emotional reflections and background exposition is terrific. All three are maintained in balance while the plot thickens at a brisk pace, making this novel very smooth and easy to follow. Looking at how many novels and novellas Tchaikovsky produces per year and thus how little time he takes for rewriting, he must have developed a fine instinct for these matters. As a result, the universe that Tchaikovsky creates here is not felt as “too complex” or “difficult”, but as rich, colourful and intriguing. It’s an adventurous romp through the galaxy with many strange aliens, many inhabited planets and offshoots of humanity. And even with a bad cold, a headache and sleep deprivation I found it easy to keep track of.
This was very satisfying space opera and I’m looking forward to the next entry in the series.