Review: Elder Race (2021) by Adrian Tchaikovsky


Let me bring out that old, chewed-out saying by Artie Clarke. Say it with me now: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yes, and boy does Adrian Tchaikovsky play with it here. Elder Race (2021) is a delightful little novel (or novella) that juxtaposes the perspectives of fantasy and science fiction in a very immediate way and to humorous and emotional effect. This was great fun.

Lynesse is the Fourth Daughter of the Queen. As an independent spirit she has always been fascinated by the stories of her ancestors and how they called on the ancient wizard Nyrgoth the Elder to help the kingdom fight against demons and dark magic. That was centuries ago, but now a new demon stalks the land, causing the forest peoples to panic and flee. Lynesse takes it upon herself to travel to the old wizard tower to ask the wizard Nyr for his help once more.

Nyr is a centuries-old anthropologist, residing in frozen sleep in his high-tech outpost, only to awaken once every few centuries to observe the progress of these primitive kingdoms, these regressed peoples from earlier waves of space exploration. Two hundred years ago he was asked by a queen to help him slay a “demon” which was in fact an old mining machine that got operable again. He isn’t supposed to meddle with these people, but Earth stopped sending messages and he got lonely. His clinical depression is kept at bay by advanced technology, but sometimes he has to let the void break through. And Lynesse reminds him of her own grandmother, whom he loved.

Off they set on their “quest” to “slay the demon”. Short chapters from Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives alternate at a good pace, so at every turn of the story we get both their interpretations of events. This leads to some funny situations and misunderstandings. We as readers occupy some odd place in between these two characters. We have outgrown the pre-scientific world of wizards and demons but we only vaguely understand Nyr’s nanotech and neuroscience.

We’re the missing link as readers, but we’re not there to help them out, although we would find Nyr’s perspective more understandable and comfortable and that makes this a sci-fi book in disguise. It overrules the other in sense making, although the fantasy perspective is emotionally resonant on a deep level. And, the main trope that this book plays with, that of a wizard in a tower and a quest, comes from the fantasy side of things, and it shapes the plot. Makes me wonder if we still regard the stories of our own lives in a way that is similar to fantasy stories, while the sense and meaning of everyday events is interpreted through a scientific lens.

This little book has perhaps the best depiction I have seen in science fiction of a character struggling with depression. Nyr has a neurological gadget that allows him to switch off his emotions so that he can engage in calm and rational thought, which he frequently deploys. But he can feel the pressure of emotions building up behind that barrier and he regularly needs to switch the barrier off to let that buildup of feelings wash over him before the dam breaks. The communication problems with Lynesse add to his despair, as does the loneliness and lack of prospects. 

Elder Race is a beautiful little novel that embraces two genres, two modes of storytelling and making sense of the world, and marriages them in a touching story. It is surely among Tchaikovsky’s best work to date.

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7 Responses to Review: Elder Race (2021) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  1. Keeping abreast of this author’s production is becoming a harder struggle with every passing day, but this is one of his most recent titles I intend to explore, because your description (particularly where you mention that the story is “sci-fi in disguise”) makes it a very intriguing proposition.
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. bormgans says:

    This could be it: the first Tchaikovsky I try. Fun might be what I need. I hope it’s not too light?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookstooge says:

    Much like Maddalena, I am finding it harder and harder to keep up with Tchaikovsky’s output. To the point where I’m not even trying now. Plus the reviews of several of his latest books seems like he’s gone pointedly political and that doesn’t induce me to try to keep up either.

    For me, if I want more Tchaikovsky, I’ll just re-read his Shadows of the Apt series 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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