Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've read two of this author's books before, and in looking back on those reviews, I see a common thread: the ideas were big and fascinating, the worldbuilding intricate...and the characterization was lacking.
This book remedies that quite decisively, and in so doing, positions itself as one of my favorite SF reads this year.
This is an epic space opera dealing with trauma, PTSD, and how we treat refugees, set against the backdrop of a galaxy-spanning extinction event at the hands of the so-called Architects: moon-sized beings that carve planets into beautiful and terrible works of art. Of course, the planet's inhabitants, at least those who can't evacuate, are killed. This happened to Earth one hundred and twenty-three years prior in this timeline, and the remnants of humanity are scattered through various colony worlds. The surviving governments and human factions are desperate to find something to stop the Architects, but nothing works...until the invention, by genetic engineering, conditioning and surgery, of the Intermediaries, humans that are basically experimented on to produce a psychic connection to the massive alien minds of the Architects.
Our main protagonist, Idris Telemmier, is such an Intermediary, and he succeeds in momentarily touching the mind of an Architect and making it aware of his existence....whereupon it abandons the planet it had been targeting and vanishes into "unspace," the dimension that Idris can navigate and which facilitates this universe's FTL travel. The Architects disappear for decades, long enough that humanity settles on other worlds and begins to forget the terror and trauma of living every day not knowing if at any moment an Architect will pop out of unspace and begin to carve up their planets. (The Architects are used sparingly and well in this book; their depredations are mostly described after the fact until the final battle, when we see humans and other alien species sending out fleets of their most advanced warships and hurling everything they have against the creatures--and hardly slowing them down. That would make a helluva onscreen battle....but I think attempting to film this story would bust the CGI bank.) Fifty years later, Idris has left the Colonies behind and fallen in with the crew of the Vulture God, a salvage ship. (The cost of remaking his brain to become an Intermediary is that he doesn't age and doesn't sleep. He's also highly traumatized and often barely holding himself together.) In taking on a job searching for a ship that has disappeared from the Throughways, the recognized paths through unspace, the Vulture God and its crew finds its target--only to realize the ship has been remade in the Architects' pattern. With this, the central question of the book emerges: Have the Architects returned?
We spend most of our time in Idris' head, but there are several other viewpoint characters as well. All of them are well-written, especially Solace, the Partheni warrior and spy who is out to find Idris and persuade him to join the Parthenon, and who talks herself into a berth on the Vulture God. (The Parthenon is one of several human factions, this one consisting, as you might guess from the name, entirely of parthogenetically grown women.) There are also nonhuman characters; a particular delight was Delegate Trine, one of the Hivers (described as "composite cyborg insect intelligences" in the glossary) who is fussy and snarky and steals every scene it's in.
This is a very fat book, but it did not sag at all, in the middle or anywhere else. It's the first of a trilogy, but despite the tense battle scenes and revelations of a further threat possibly greater than the Architects, the author does not stoop to having a cliffhanger ending. There is clearly more story to be told, but this first chapter is satisfactorily wrapped up, with the characters in a good place...at least for a while. I don't know when the next book in the series is coming out, but it will be an insta-buy for me when it does. Y'all should check this out, because it is fucking amazing.
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