2012’s The Air War is the eighth book in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series.
The Treaty of Gold guarantees unending peace. Should the Wasp Empire attack the Alliance, Solarno, the Spiderlands, or any one of the Lowland cities, the others are treaty-bound to come to the victim’s defense. This measure has stood the test of time, defined as “that short period in which the Empire was more interested in suppressing uprisings within the Empire than adding new territory.”
Her empire is now secure. But the Empress suffered too many years under the thumb of her brother (the late Emperor) to tolerate potential threats, within or without the empire. Every kingdom, city-state, and commonwealth outside the empire might someday menace her rule. Therefore they must be conquered. QED.
The Empire’s pretext for its attack on Myna is paper-thin. Perhaps it would have sufficed in the old days, when each nation stood alone. Now each state understands that refusing to stand with Myna will only delay, not prevent, the Empire from turning on that nation in turn. For the moment, at least, the treaty signatories stand united against the Empire’s aggression.
Not that that matters. The Empire has prepared strenuously for renewed war. Its enemies face new weapons and new tactics. Despite their best efforts, the defenders are swept away. Myna falls.
Collegium, source of so much trouble for the Empire, is next. It is nowhere near the current imperial borders, but distance is no protection now. The Empire has developed long-range aircraft. Collegium faces waves of bombers. Once it has been softened, Wasp troops will invade and occupy the ruins.
Collegium has its own surprises, not least of which is Banjacs Gripshod’s wondrous device. A wondrous device whose effects Banjacs declines to describe in concrete terms. A wondrous device that is not quite finished. A wondrous device whose creator’s name is synonymous with spectacular failure.
The side-quest phase of the series is over. No more hobnobbing with decadent inapt aristocracy or quests deep under the sea. The A‑plot is back. On the plus side, Che is nowhere to be seen. On the minus, it turns out one does not need the Camping with Cheerwell effect to produce bodies in great abundance.
I suspect (not having read the final book) that the war will come down to one of two factors. The first is which side’s economy is bigger. The Empire is vast, but the Lowlands may have a larger aggregate economy.
The other factor is the possibility of game-breaking new technology. That’s what occurred five centuries ago when the apt ended the age of magic. It may be that the Empress will succeed in bringing old magic back. It could be that the lowlands will discover mundane weapons of mass destruction. Either way, the world in the last two books will be very different from that of the first book in the series.
Is it all worth it? Would being ruled by Wasps be so much worse than a war more destructive than anything this world has yet experienced? Even if the Lowlands were to win, would the new tech they had embraced be a boon … or a curse? There are moments in which protagonist Stenwald (still somehow alive despite all he has endured) has to wrestle with issues of conscience, weighing what’s right against what he thinks is necessary to win the war. I’d like to say he always makes the right choice but oh, well.
It takes a while for the war to begin but once it does, this is an energetic, brutal military-fantasy novel.