2009’s Blood of the Mantis is the third volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series.
Spymaster Stenwald Maker is tasked with the surveillance of two other city states … but he has only a few trusted agents. He decides to split his forces.
This may or may not be a bad decision. Dividing one’s forces often is.
The pieces on the board:
A. The distant city-state of Solarno is possibly the next target of the Wasp Empire (the bad guys). It is up to Stenwald’s niece Cheerwell and agent Fly-Kinden to stop the Wasps in Solarno. The trip to Solarno is dangerous enough. The city itself will be worse.
B. The other party is composed of Stenwald’s old friend Tisamon, Tisamon’s daughter (and Stenwald’s ward) Tynisa, and magician Achaeos. He sends them to Jerez, tasking them to intercept a magical artifact before it can be delivered to the Wasps. Stenwald’s agents are accompanied by former Wasp spy Thalric, now a traitor to the Empire. Something that perhaps the Wasps in Jerez do not know.
C. Wasp Emperor Alvdan didn’t get where he is by sparing the bloodshed. Not only enemies, but relatives. All blood relatives with a claim to the throne are dead — with one exception. He has thus far spared his sister Seda, believing that she might be more useful alive than dead. Seda does not like living under threat of death … or threat that she might be foully used to foul ends. She secretly allies herself with Uctebri the Sarcad. Uctebri is evil, she knows that, but the Emperor is a more immediate danger.
A. Solarno favors voting rather than assassination as a means of choosing their rulers. This has worked well so far. Now Wasp agents are whipping up discord.
B: Tisamon and company must. track down a shapeshifting enemy agent Scyla, whose true face and gender they do not know. Next step: locate the auction at which the shapeshifter plans to sell the mysterious Shadow Box. Then: retrieve the item before the many factions determined to have the Box for their own can grab it.
Above all, survive contact with the Box itself…
There seems to be a recurring pattern with the romances in this book.
Che is entangled with the magician Achaeos;
a heretofore unmentioned former Wasp agent Arianna has strategically selected Stenwald as her lover/protector;
a previously unmentioned character, Prize-of-Dragons, is sleeping with prince-turned-folk-hero Salme of Dien.
It seems that women sleep with their mentors; when a mentor is not available, they sleep with someone who can shield them from the Wasp Empire.
Exception: the Emperor’s sister Seda is NOT entangled with her dubious ally, Uctebri the Sarcad.
Che does have an irritating tendency to get captured, but she compensates for that. While in captivity, she makes new friends and allies. In this volume, she befriends Fly-Kinden pilot Taki, as well as the mysterious killer Cesta (aka Cesta the Assassin). To call Cesta a friend may overstate the warmth of the relationship … but as long as he’s stabbing the people trying to kill Che and her friends, he is a useful man to know.
Stenwald’s inward-facing Lowlands seem to have a limited historical horizon. They have records of the last five centuries, records that focus on the events that directly touched on the Lowlands. The records are sometimes incomplete or biased; when it would comfort the powers-that-be to turn a blind eye, a blind eye is turned. Um, Collegium? It might be a good idea to document the full history of your world, warts and all. Of course, historical accuracy could expose one to premature termination but hey … there are always more grad students.
The plotline re Wasps maliciously encouraging and exploiting social divisions surely has a subtext now that it did not have back in 2009, when this book was published.
Blood of the Mantis is very much an intermediate volume in an ongoing series, more so than the previous volume. It exists to build on old plot lines and set up new ones; it does not seem to be in business to resolve anything. Readers who demand closure should be aware they won’t get that for at least one more volume. That said, I enjoyed it nine years ago … and am only now realizing that 2009 is all of nine years ago. How did that happen?