Race of the AncientsAdrian Tchaikovsky (Tordotcom 978-1-250-76872-8, $14.99, 199 pp, tp) November 2021. Cover by Emmanuel Shu.
by Adrian Tchaikovsky Race of the Ancients modestly mixes ingredients from science fiction and fantasy cookbooks. The usual recipe for science-fantasy is a setting that comes across as fantasy – medieval/feudal societies with aristocrats, magicians, monsters, and warrior heroes – but ultimately explains magic in material rather than supernatural terms ( Arthur C. Clarke is sufficiently advanced technology, etc.); or which presents a magical universe which nevertheless functions according to rules as intelligible as those of material science (see Walter Jon Williams’s Metropolitan or that of Michael Swanwick The daughter of the iron dragon).
Tchaikovsky, however, is cooking up something a little different in Race of the Ancients. The first chapter gives us Lynesse Fourth Daughter, a brave, scapegrace (and quite junior) princess, and her valiant smartmouth companion, Esha Free Mark, on a journey to a wizard’s tower to affirm the terms of an “ancient pact.” The next chapter reveals that the wizard they refer to as Nygroth Elder, “the last of the elders”, is actually Nyr Illim Tevitch, “second class anthropologist of the Corps of Earth Explorers”, left in suspended animation to attend to of the store after his colleagues returned to headquarters. centuries earlier. The crucial variation on the familiar low-tech/high-tech sci-fantasy scenario is that the story alternates between Lynesse’s (third-person) and Nyr’s (first-person) viewpoints, and that it it’s only partially about Lynesse’s quest (yes, there is a quest) to rid the world of a monstrous intruder.
The monster – Lynesse calls it a demon – is very real, although Lyne has failed to convince anyone at her mother’s court of the threat, and Nyr is also skeptical, until they finally meet the demonic infestation, almost three quarters of the population. way through the book. Until then, the conflicts are about roles and realities and mutual misunderstandings. I found it impossible to read this book without thinking of Tolkien. What if Gandalf was not an incarnate angel but a second class a scientific bureaucrat anxious not to contaminate the societies he studies? (If he looked a bit like Tim the Wizard of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) What if Frodo was a 16-year-old JG princess with a head full of heroic claptrap from old stories – with, nevertheless, a better interpretation of the need for heroism than the wizard’s? What if bridging the gap between worldviews and accepted expectations and roles was almost as big a problem as finding and defeating a monster?
Nyr has a pretty good idea of the source of Lyn’s perspective on him, since his unauthorized extracurricular activities from a century earlier are one of the sources of his heroic-romantic notions. But his problem is not as simple as explaining “seeds or the power of fusion or anthropological theories of value” to Lyn and Esha; it is with categories deeply rooted in their culture.
They think I’m a wizard…. And I literally don’t have the language to tell them otherwise. I say “scientist”, “erudite”, but when I speak to them in their language, they are both words akin to “sorcerer”. I imagine myself saying… “I’m not a wizard; I am a wizard, or at best a wizard. It’s not funny.
Of course, to the locals, everything about Nyr screams “wizard,” from his looks (seven-foot-tall, with horns) to his wardrobe’s personal defense measures, to his ability to control the monsters that actually malfunction the old construction machines (his magic spells are the command codes).
Inside Nyr, however, it’s a different story, and the demon Lyn hunts isn’t the only one on the loose, though Nyr’s is psychological and metaphorical. He might be the product of an advanced technological civilization, loaded with physical and mental enhancements and powers, but he is also given to uncertainty and depression and kept psychologically afloat by one of those enhancements, his dissociative cognitive system, which attenuates emotional upheavals and allows a cold and rational analysis. But there is a price to pay when the DCS is turned off in order to clean up the physiological mess caused by suppressing the somatic aspects of fear, anxiety, stress and grief. The more Nyr understands Lyn’s desperate courage, the more he feels sad for her “trying to be something that never was in the world, and failing because it’s impossible, and trying again” .
Despite the ironies, uncertainties, and misunderstandings, the story lives up to its contract to deliver a fantastic round-trip adventure, no matter how ironic. The demon is a real and profound threat, the companions confront it and their fight has a price. At the same time, the book is a way of looking at fantasy – and fantasy is looking at us. It’s about the power of the story, even when the details are misunderstood or made up. And that’s another story with a lot of heart.
Editor Russell Letson is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He’s been hanging out in the world of SF since childhood and writing about it since his grad school days. In the meantime, he has published a good deal of business, technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book on the Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and others like it in the January 2022 issue of Place.
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