2011’s The Sea Watch is the sixth volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt.
In the midst of a contentious election, Stenwald Maker is alarmed to discover that his niece Cheerwell has chosen not to return to Collegium following the Khanaphes expedition. Worse yet, the ambassadors from the ant city-state of Vek see ill intent in the fact that Collegium has also received envoys from the ant city-state of Tsen. Of all possible enemies, ants feel the direst hate for other ants.
With so much going on, Stenwald discounts Master Failwright’s complaints about his shipping losses. Mere alarmism, he thinks. He is making a big mistake…
Collegium’s scholars are well aware that they are ignorant of lands beyond the Lowlands. They are far less aware that they know even less of conditions under the ocean. In ages past (now remembered only in myth) the ocean floor was settled by kinden. For uncounted millennia, the kinden under the sea have lived apart from the land-dwellers. Now most land-dwellers have no idea that their submarine cousins exist.
But the people under the sea know about their land-dwelling cousins. One faction — the Littoralists — believe it is their destiny to reclaim the land from the people who drove them into the sea. Achievement of the Littoralist dream may be at hand. Not only do the undersea people have new weapons, they have allies within Collegium itself.
Eventually understanding that he may have overlooked a serious threat to his beloved city, Stenwald investigates. He finds a few fragments of information re the undersea kinden. What he learns is enough to prove that Collegium is facing a major challenge; it is not enough to help them protect their city.
Nor do the scraps he unearths keep Stenwald from walking into a trap. Nor from being carried off by monsters into the very depths of the sea.
There’s a fairly gratuitous Stuffed-into-the-Fridge moment in this, in which a long-running supporting character is killed off, presumable to give Stenwald a reason to feel sad and urge him to do the emotionally satisfying thing. Which is to have the person responsible dipped in catnip and fed to cats . This is not the smart thing, which would have been to punish that person in a manner that would actually help Collegium. It’s a dramatic episode, but one that is (IMHO) both gratuitous and annoying.
Previous books in this series have focused on “who makes best use of their technology?” and “whose dread magics go sideways at the worst moment?” The Sea Watch focuses on the utility of cooperation. The Wasp Empire has pushed technological progress. Their potential victims have had to adopt Wasp tech AND learn how to cooperate. It’s the second task that has been the most difficult. In this book, the ant city-states seem to be failing at cooperation: they hate all outsiders, with other ants the favored target. The Lowlands are doing better; they seem to be on the verge of discovering something like the nation-state.
Individuals need to learn cooperation as well. Survival requires working with unpleasant people, even if it would be more satisfying to eliminate them. As a certain man with a tall pointy hat once said:
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
The land-kinden arts (their special powers) are grander versions of the abiliti9es possessed by the insects that we know as ants, wasps, etc. The sea-kinden also have special powers, powers that derive from even odder animals. Those powers are unexpected … and disquieting. Tchaikovsky is clearly having fun with his worldbuilding.
Many of the characters one met in previous volumes do not appear here: they are off-stage or dead. Stenwald alone narrates much of the book. The novel is none the less interesting for that reduced focus. Stenwald is a resourceful improviser with an engaging voice. I liked this book; you might like it too.
1: I am not sure there are cats in this setting. Make that giant bugs.