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Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky, author of Shadow of the Apt series

31 July 2013 Tom Hunter

We caught up with fantasy author Adrian Tchaikovsky as book nine of ten in the Shadow of the Apt series is published...

London Calling: Can you tell us about the world of Shadows of the Apt?

Adrian Tchaikovsky: The world of the kinden basically comes from two directions. Firstly, it’s a world where all the different breeds of human are Insect-kinden, each one of them drawing abilities and something of their character from (my view of) a different insect (arachnid, mollusc etc.). Some can fly, some have barbs or claws, some can sting, and none of that is viewed as in the least unusual by the kinden – it’s not magic, to them, but just the way the world works.

Because there is magic, or there is if you believe what the Inapt say. This is the other side of it: the “Apt” of the series title are the kinden who are technologically capable: they can build, use and just flat out conceive of all manner of devices (generally steam, clockwork or similarly esoteric), and they have no ability to comprehend magic, or sustain belief in it. The Inapt, on the other hand, understand magic but have a complete mental block with even simple mechanisms. Way back in the past the Inapt ruled the world, but magic dwindled, the Apt rebelled, and now the Inapt are a remnant of their former glory, and the Apt are steady pushing from the dark ages of the past to a very modern age of unrestrained progress. Which progress is a double-edged sword, given that it includes mass aerial bombardment, war machines and weapons of mass destruction.

This is another key element, really: the magic/tech divide is a concept that turns up here and there in fantasy, but usually one side is good (mostly magic) and the other (dirty polluting tech) is bad. With the world of the kinden, they’re basically both as bad as the people who use them, whether it’s blood sacrifice in a Mantis-kinden grove or the Wasp Empire’s city-levelling weaponry.

LC: Where does your fascination with insect chaarcters come from?

AT: Well, yeah. You see I have this whole spiel I give, about the symbolism of insects as representing human characteristics – there’s a long mostly Central/Eastern European tradition of this, with writers like Kafka and Capek and Pelevin, so it sounds terribly educated. On the other hand, insects are usually used to examine negative human characteristics, and in Shadows of the Apt it’s the human natures of the characters that are usually responsible for the bad things they do. The insect natures are a sort of Platonic ideal that they aspire to (from whence come the powers that they can use). The basic thing is: I really like insects. I always have. And when I came to turn this setting into a book, I just knew it was something that had never been done before in a fantasy novel like this. It gave me enormous freedom in the world building.

LC: Some modern fantasy seems to be eschewing overt magic in favour of the grim and gritty, and perhaps as a means of luring in more mainstream readers, but is magic as essential component of fantasy do you think?

AT: You can have excellent secondary world fantasy with no magic at all. Aside from Gormenghast, I’d direct readers to Frances Hardinge’s “Fly By Night” and ”Twilight Robbery”, both beautiful books, both set in a bizarre and fantastic world that needs no actual supernatural element to give it life. And as you say, there is a lot of good fantasy about that has low or no magic (Abercrombie, KJ Parker, for example – even going back to some of David Gemmel). I think that if there’s no magic at all, though, then you need something to step into that space: you need at least the shadow of the numinous, the mysterious, the fantastic. And while it can be done without actual magic, that is a tough thing to make work. I suspect I’m unlikely to ever write a fantasy entirely divorced from the magical.
I’d also say I don’t think “overt magic” and “grim and gritty” are the poles, in this case. I think you could have a very upbeat and ringingly heroic story that had no magic to it (although magic tends to be used by such stories as duct tape for the plot), and I think you could have a very gritty story that had plenty of magic – wizards, after all, can be vicious sons of bitches too (try some of Juliet McKenna’s work for hard-bitten wizards). Scott Lynch, for example, is generally spoken of in the context of the “grimdark” school of fantasy, and there’s a lot of magic in “Locke Lamora”, just as there is in Hulick’s excellent “Among Thieves.”

LC: We hear a rumour that you’re training in broadsword fighting techniques? True? And how does the reality of this combat style play against fictional depictions of sword fights?

AT: I’m currently training with the KDF/European Historical Combat Guild at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. We’re doing longsword (Medieval German meisterhau), poleaxe, dagger, and a bit of Roman gladius, and it’s all ferociously useful when it comes to adding to my fight-writing toolkit – although it can get frustrating, when you see a particularly clever move, and get stuck on thinking, “How would I ever actually bring that across to a reader?” I’ve always worked hard on my fight scenes (and in general they seem to pass muster with people who cast a critical eye over such things) and I’m very keen to make them believable – both in the actual technical side of it (although it’s never good to get too bogged down in terminology and precision – the flow and emotional feel is key) and in the narrative of fights – for example the oft-seen setup of a fight where the superior warrior loses – which can be handled horribly badly (see an enormous number of film fights) if you don’t think through how it might get turned around.

LC: Other than learning to fight with a massive sword, what other kinds of preparation research and planning would you do for a new novel?

AT: Well, I’m currently most of the way through the first book of a new series which I am rather flippantly describing as “Bronze Age Hunger Games with Shapeshifters”. I took about three months of research and reading on various real world cultures, and at the same time I sat down and worked out a basic idea of the landscape, the various peoples, the key supernatural element, and how that then had a knock-on effect on how people would live, and what traditions might arise. I seem to be one of the more plan-ahead kind of writers, and a lot of my characters and plot developments arise organically out of the world itself – both for Shadows of the Apt and for this new series.

LC: Any particularly interesting / random fandom encounters you’d care to share with us?

AT: I got into the convention circuit late – before I was published I didn’t go to cons at all, and frankly, given it took me 15 years of rejections to get into print, that was probably a good thing. Anyone remotely involved in publishing would have been able to smell the desperation coming off me in waves. Now, of course, it’s a major part of the yearly calendar – I’m just tooling up to head for the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London for 9th August, and then we’ve got the World Fantasy Convention later on, Loncon 3 next year, etcetera etcetera. And I got to meet George RR Martin last Easter. In fact I managed to meet him three times before I could actually speak to him, because I came down with a severe case of the we’re-not-worthies. I gave him a copy of “Empire in Black and Gold” so, you know, at least he had something hefty to get the attention of the airport staff on the way home…

LC: And finally, what’s next?

AT: Well, with “War Master’s Gate” out now, next year sees the final Shadows of the Apt book, “Seal of the Worm”, that brings that whole ten books to a close. Beyond that, I have a stand-alone book “Guns of the Dawn”, which is set in a secondary world that draws a lot on end 18th/start 19th century settings, and is best described as “Jane Austen meets Bernard Cornwell by way of Ursula le Guin”, or alternatively, “Eliza Bennett gets drafted.” After that will be the Bronze Age-type setting I mentioned above, currently going under the title “The Tiger and the Wolf” which will be the start of a sequence that will not run to ten books, just for a change. And there are some other projects I’m kicking around, including a genuine proper honest-to-goodness science fiction novel that I’m hoping to interest someone in, and… well, there’s always stuff. I’ve also got a collection of some of the best of my short stories coming out in August in Newcon Press’s Imaginings series, called “Feast and Famine” and I’m hoping that might prove a pleasantly accessible entrypoint to my work.


Adrian's latest book Warmaster's Gate will be released 1 August 2013. 

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