Review: The Bear and the Serpent, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 out of 5

Well, I’ve spent my time getting around to reviewing this… I liked it, but Mr Tchaikovsky is adept at bringing out emotions. Perhaps too adept as I have not wanted to carry on with the third volume of this trilogy, instead preferring other fantasy to this. What the author revealed in this book was fear: is this enemy what we would be? What would we destroy only because we do not understand it? These are complex questions and, as ever, with any book, what a reader takes away is their choice (and dependent on when they read the book as well).

There are two primary arcs: one of these in the southern riverlands (still reminiscent of Egypt) and the other in the north (“Crown of the World”). The northern story line is led by the Bear and is generally more amusing. Lone Mountain’s story was great on an individual level, but my preference was the Kasra arc, finding out who would rule in the south. The solution was actually obvious a long time before it was announced and some of the climactic changes were also visible from a distance, but this still turned the nominally Bronze Age society into a politicking entity with its strengths and weaknesses. The main drawback was that the points-of-view the reader sees are so uninformed, the reader learns very little about the society and their customs. Meanwhile, Lone Mountain’s efforts to do things were funnier and, on the whole, gripping, but lacked the potential sophistication (which wasn’t carried out).

Maniye takes a second seat in much of this though she learns about her origin and also future. Nevertheless, she is not featured in the same prominent role as in the last book. Meanwhile, side characters from the first story such as Grey Herald, get their own very interesting paths to trod, bringing to life the old myths. The dragon, Venat, is another, making for an interesting change as it is clear that despite his bickering in the first book, he really did learn a lot on his travels. Yet, the author seemed hard-pressed to describe this in any length and we only see Venat in a couple of scenes. The serpent priests also deserve a mention though their convoluted plots seem to hinder the story more than help it. Lastly, Two Heads Talking is probably the best of the minor characters in this, always helping with a wise word or phrase. The northern arcs are worth reading only for his insights.

Then we come to the gun-bearing, soulless creatures who have intruded and massacred. The horror felt by the people of the world at this is boundless; the sorrow felt by the survivors much the same. And, yet, when the words are examined to show that the intruders have come in ships of steel and air, bearing guns, and talking a language that none of the “civilized” people can understand, it is not hard to guess the kind of people who have come knocking. It is also very hard to see how our brave characters could possibly manage to fight these opponents to a draw, not to mention a victory. It does not look as if these invaders have a particular grudge: calculated interest and expansionism seem to be the motives (at least right now). Perhaps this won’t turn out to be the case, but that would require another book with a look into the depths of (soulless?) Man.

Overall, I think this is a good book. I can see why it had to end as it did and in the place it ended, but drawing the story to a close a little differently could have made me continue with this immediately. Nevertheless, I suspect many readers are happy that the main arcs got drawn to a close with a build-up to the last book—for me, the ending allows me to figure out whether and when I am going to read the third book.

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