2010’s The Scarab Path is the fifth volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series.
To Collegium’s scholars, Khanaphes is a distant enigma. Like Collegium, Khanaphes is a Beetle city. Unlike Collegium and the other Beetle communities of the Lowlands, Khanaphes is oddly backward. It seems to be an ancient city immune to historical processes.
Cheerwell “Che” Maker has a hypothesis. Perhaps Khanaphes’ Beetles are Inapts, magical adepts blind to machinery. Cheerwell knows from bitter experience that this is possible, because she is just such an Inapt Beetle. Opening her mind to dangerous dark forces came at a cost: her ability to comprehend even simple mechanical devices.
Still, a chance to improve her magical skills cannot be passed up. She decides to join Collegium’s expedition to Khanaphes.
Collegium’s second expedition, that is.
Collegium may see Khanaphes as an enigma. Khanaphes fully understands its own history. Its Ministers simply fail to see any point in making explicit to ignorant visitors what that history might be, given that every stone surface in the city is inscribed with arcane symbols depicting its past (at least for those who understand the symbology). The Ministers are not hostile to curious visitors. They are merely supremely indifferent.
Master Kadro was not content to sit and wonder. Kadro did his best to uncover Khanaphes’ secrets. Perhaps he succeeded. None can say, as Kadro has vanished and is unable to explain what it was he found. Perhaps Che can recapitulate Kadro’s research. Perhaps she too will vanish into Khanaphes’ labyrinths.
Perhaps she will not have the time.
The Wasp Empire is still divided, but with every passing day the Empress Seda’s control solidifies. One might expect this would be good news for Seda’s consort, Imperial Regent Thalric. It is not; he is learning too late just how terrifying Seda can be. A marital vacation seems advisable; he decides to join a Wasp expedition headed to the mysterious city.
Why the Empire cares about a backward Beetle city is unclear. What is clear is that the Empire plans to wipe Khanaphes and everyone in it from the face of the Earth. That would include tourists.
“Never get involved in land war in Asia,” “Never bet against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” and most especially, “Never, ever go camping with Cheerwell Maker.” Thus far Cheerwell has survived dabbling in malevolent, eldritch forces and forays deep into enemy territory. Her companions, however … some did not survive and others have returned transformed.
Cheerwell’s frenemy Thalric claims
‘You must have something going for you, Che, some trick of the trade that I’ve never grasped. Think of all you’ve survived, all you’ve come through intact.’
The Wasp Empire is apparently unfamiliar with the concept of survivorship bias. Unsurprising, since the Empire was until recently unable to recognize the symptoms of victory disease in its own officer class; survivorship bias and victory disease are of course closely connected. From a Watsonian perspective, Che’s survival reflects no real gifts, just a poor judgment that has not yet caused her demise1.
A Doylist would counter that Che’s inability to tell when she is out of her depth is a wonderful gift to her author. Nothing promises adventure like a protagonist without common sense or a hearty sense of self preservation. Best not to kill her off just yet, not while she can be used to drag other characters to entertaining dooms.
Che is as ever an entertaining character to follow. Just don’t get too attached to her friends.
1: Some misguided persons might try to apply survivorship bias to the Nicoll Event list . They would be wrong to do so. Each little misadventure is a demonstration of my statistical invulnerability, proof that whatever the apparent risks, the actual risks must have been and must be infinitesimal for me to have lived this long. QED.