Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Elder Race
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: November 16, 2021
Length: 201 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon… 

This stunning, inventive, beautifully crafted novella is a living, breathing embodiment of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In Elder Race, Lynesse Fourth Daughter, daughter of the queen of Lannesite, takes the forbidden trail up the mountain to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the revered sorcerer who has not been seen for generations. Lynesse is not taken seriously by her mother or older sisters, all of whom prefer to focus on trade and diplomacy rather than indulge Lynesse’s flights of fancy. But Lynesse has heard refugees from outlying lands plea for help after their towns and forests were overrun by a demon, and she’s determined to take action, even if her mother won’t.

That’s the opening set-up of Elder Race. It feels like the start of an epic quest, and hurray for girl power too!

Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers completely, because there’s a doozy coming…

Ready?

The next chapter is told from the perspective of Nyrgoth Elder… and it turns everything upside down. It turns out that his name is really Nyr Illim Tevitch, and he’s not a sorcerer. Nyr is an anthropologist with Earth’s Explorer Corps, and he’s there in his remote outpost to study and observe the local populations.

Thousands of years earlier, Earth sent out generation ships to colonize planets throughout the universe. And some thousands of years after that, groups of scientists followed to check on how the colonies turned out. Nyr was a part of one of these expeditions, and after his fellow scientists were recalled to Earth, he was left behind, the sole member of the expedition remaining to continue their studies.

The problem is, he hasn’t heard back from Earth in centuries. Nyr stays alive through advanced science, including long periods of sleeping in suspended animation. He last awoke a century earlier, and broke one of the cardinal rules of anthropologists by getting involved with the local people. His mission is to study and report; by mingling with the people, he’s potentially contaminating the study.

When Lynesse and her companion Esha show up at his tower, there begins a remarkable story of cultural differences and miscommunications. The early colonies on the planet were rudimentary, starting life over without technology. Their culture is agrarian and feudal and deeply superstitious. Anything unexplainable is attributed to magic and demons and sorcerers. And so even when Nyr tries to explain himself, the language gap between the cultures makes it literally impossible for him to translate the term scientist — every word he tries to use comes out as some form of magician or sorcerer or wizard.

“It’s not magic,” he insisted, against all reason. “I am just made this way. I am just of a people who understand how the world works.”

“Nyrgoth Elder,” Esha said slowly. “Is that not what magic is? Every wise man, every scholar I have met who pretended to the title of magician, that was their study. They sought to learn how the world worked, so that they could control and master it. That is magic.”

As their quest proceeds, Nyr goes against every principle of his training, as he realizes that he can actually serve a different purpose:

I am only now, at the wrong end of three centuries after loss of contact, beginning to realise just how broken my own superior culture actually was. They set us here to make exhaustive anthropological notes on the fall of every sparrow. But not to catch a single one of them. To know, but very emphatically not to care.

I can’t even begin to explain how gorgeously crafted this slim book is. Particularly mind-blowing is a chapter in which Nyr tells Lynesse and Esha the story of how his people came to the planet millennia ago. On the same page, in parallel columns, we read Nyr’s science-based story and right next to it, the same story as it’s heard by Lynesse in the context of her own culture and language. It’s a remarkable writing achievement, and just so fascinating to read.

Also fascinating is Elder Race‘s treatment of depression and mental health, which for Nyr is managed through the use of advanced technology that allows him to separate from his feelings — but not permanently. He can shut off feeling his feelings, but is still aware that they’re there, and can only go so long before he has to let down the wall and experience the emotions that have been walled away. The descriptions of dealing with depression are powerful, as is the way he explains knowing the depression is waiting for him, even in moments when he’s not living it.

I absolutely loved the depiction of a tech-free culture’s interpretation of advanced scientific materials and equipment, and the way the books chapters, alternating between Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives, bring the cultural divide to life.

Elder Race is beautifully written and expertly constructed. The balancing act between science fiction and fantasy is just superb. This book should not be missed!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite Characters in Epic Fantasy Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is:

Top Ten Favorite Characters in “X” Genre…

… where we each write about the genre of our choice. Tough call — historical fiction? vampire stories? old-fashioned romances? diet and exercise books? (ha – kidding!). I decided to go with Epic Fantasy, or at least what I’d consider epic fantasy: Swords, dragons, kingdoms, knights, perhaps some magical beings, certainly lots of heroic quests and struggles.

That said, my absolute favorite characters — most of whom do, in fact, wield mighty swords — come from just a few books, so here’s my list, broken down by the novel or series that feature these awesome* characters:

*awesome: inspiring awe. Not awesome as in “OMG! That song it totally awesome!”

From Lord of the Rings:

1) Aragorn: My king! Aragorn is everything an Aragornepic hero should be: noble, selfless, fearless in battle, utterly committed to his righteous cause.

2) Gandalf: Gray or white, Gandalf has more power in his little finger than most other fictional wizards combined. (I say “most”, because I’m still not sure who’d win in a head-to-head between Gandalf and Dumbledore. Just because Albus comes across as a twinkly old guy doesn’t mean that he’s not fierce).

3) Samwise Gamgee: What’s a quest without a devoted sidekick? You don’t get best friends better than Sam.

http://nschmiedicker.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/furies-of-calderon.jpgFrom Codex Alera by Jim Butcher:

Codex Alera, by the way, is a fantastic series. Jim Butcher is better know for his (also wonderful) Dresden Files books, but this six-volume fantasy series is crisp, funny, inventive, and sharply plotted. Colorful and memorable characters abound, but my favorites would have to be:

4) Tavi: We meet Tavi as a boy, frustrated by his lack of magic in a world where lacking such gifts makes you a freak. Over the course of the series, we see Tavi grow into manhood, come into his heritage, unravel mysteries, and — oh, yeah — pretty much save the world. Plus, he’s funny and fearless, loyal to a fault, and crazily adventurous.

5) Kitai: Daughter of the savage tribe across the border, Kitai is strong, steely, and independent. She may be Tavi’s love interest, but that doesn’t mean she’s at all subservient to or weaker than him in any way. I love how Jim Butcher creates Kitai to be a warrior. As the love story blossoms, it’s a love between equals, which seems rather rare in these type of heroic tales.

6) Araris Valerian: Araris Valerian is a tragic, heroic figure, dedicated to Tavi’s protection, never revealing his secret past or breaking the vows he’s sworn to uphold. And boy, can that man swing a sword!

From A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin:

7) Ned Stark: Ned is honorable to the point of ruin, but I love him madly despite his blundering belief that if he lives as a man of honor, those around him will do so as well. No spoilers here, so my Ned tribute will have to be brief and to the point. A sexy, devoted husband, a wise, demanding, but fair father, a steadfast friend, and a courageous lord. Sigh.

8) Jon Snow: I get the chills every time Jon repeats the oath of the Night’s Watch: “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.” Jon has the power of his convictions, but he’s not afraid to shake things up. Again, no spoilers, but suffice it to say that Jon Snow is one of the main reasons I’m practically frothing at the mouth waiting for book #6 to show up.

9) Tyrion Lannister: It was a toss-up between Tyrion and Jamie here, but in the end I can’t put together a list of favorite characters without a big shout-out to the Imp. He may be devious and cunning, but boy, is Tyrion smart. The overlooked and scorned “grotesque” son turns into a force to be reckoned with. Tyrion is small in stature, but he can out-think any man or woman in Westeros, and it’s his brain that may save the day for his family in the end.

And finally, from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley:https://bookshelffantasies.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/bluesword.jpg?w=178

10) Harry Crewe: The Blue Sword is one of my favorite Robin McKinley books, and that’s mostly thanks to the amazing Harry Crewe. This Harry is a young woman, brought up to be a respectable miss, who joins a group of desert nomads and becomes a fierce horsewoman and wielder of the mythic blue sword Gonturan. Harry leads her people into battle and saves the day, all the while riding a horse with no reins in order to keep her hands free for fighting. (Can you tell how impressive I find this?) If you want an epic fantasy book that’s heavy on the girl power, don’t miss The Blue Sword.

I’m sure the second I hit “Publish”, I’ll come up with another ten characters who really should have been on my list. Who would you include in a list of top fantasy characters?