Friday’s Rag Tag Crew: Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read by Adrian Tchaikovsky but to be honest the blurbs for Shards of Earth didn’t put the book to the top of my list. It sounded a lot more like a conventional space opera than, say, Children of Time or The Doors of Eden which both featured interesting explorations of how non-conventionally human minds and societies might work. That aspect of Tchaikovsky’s fiction is something he does very well and it really has pushed the boundaries of writing “alien” minds beyond the Star Trek baseline.

However, I found myself in the mood for a big space opera the other day and with the novel also being a Dragon Award finalist, it seemed like a natural choice. I wasn’t wrong in my initial assessment. It is in many ways a more conventional space opera than the books I’d read. Humanity is a spacefaring species with its own factions, in a galactic society with a range of aliens. There’s hyperspace (or rather “unspace”), a cosmic threat, mysteriously vanished advanced civilisations, space spies, space gangsters, badass warriors and epic space battles. This is all good but if you are hoping for the millennia-long deep dive into the evolution of a sapient spider civilisation this book doesn’t have anything like that. Which is fine because that gives Tchaikovsky more space and time to attend to a cast of characters.

Ah yes, it’s Friday and that means our semi-regular topic is the rag-tag crew with a spaceship that is almost a character in itself! The heart of this novel is the crew of the Vulture God — an effective but shabby-looking vessel that specialises in deep space salvage operations. The motley crew are an assortment of people of different species and backgrounds, several of whom are running from their past.

We get several POV characters but the most central of them is Idris Telemmier, the pilot of the Vulture God and an unnaturally unaged veteran of an existential war many decades earlier. Idris is an “Intermediary”, a group of psychically enhanced people created by the default version of humanity (collectively known as the Hugh) as a weapon against the mysterious Architects. The Architects were vast ships that had the habit of turning up near inhabited planets and essentially folding them like origami, killing everything on the surface. Multiple species had thrown everything they had at them to stop their mysterious apocalyptic habit but in the end, it was Idris and a few of his fellow “Ints” who finally managed to forge a brief psychic connection to the monstrous architects, persuading them to leave humanity alone – at least for a time.

We see a lot of this earlier war against the Architects via flashbacks, some from Idris but some also from the second key POV character Myrmidon Solace. She is the badass warrior character from the race of badass warrior people. Here they are an offshoot of humanity: genetically engineered warrior women who live in utopian sororities. These space Amazons are called the Partheni and in the past were the frontline against the Architects but in the post-Architect universe, they are now viewed with suspicion by the Hugh. Solace has spent much of the intervening time in cryogenic sleep, awoken only occasionally for special missions.

The set-up is relatively simple. Idris is one of the few Ints not directly controlled by the Hugh either as a military conscript or as an indentured employee (in close to slave-like conditions). Haunted by his experiences and unable to sleep, Idris has found a home on the salvage ship Vulture God and its crew of misfits. Their latest job is to find a missing cargo ship…

Meanwhile, Solace has been brought out by her commanders to use her past relationship with Idris in the hope of recruiting him as an Int. The Partheni have great military power but don’t have Ints — the one tactical advantage that the Hugh have over them. With the possibility of inter-human war growing, Idris has become a strategic asset…

…and the missing cargo ship? That has evidence that the genocidal Architects are coming back…

What ensues is a series of spiralling events, as the Vulture God finds itself pursued by different sets of gangsters with multiple agendas. Both Idris and the wreck of the lost ship have become targets of organised crime and the governments of multiple different species. Spies, cultists, gangsters, local heavies and (at one point) murderous alien trees are all out to intimidate, capture, enslave, murder, torture or eat the crew of the Vulture God and not everybody makes it out of a chapter alive.

The net effect is something that lands between an Alistair Reynolds-style space opera but with a Fast & Furious vibe. It is much more character focused than previous works of Tchaikovsky and has less emphasis on the big ideas, but Tchaikovsky’s strength in imaging non-conventionally human minds enriches the alienness of the aliens.

I didn’t get that big hit of “here is something genuinely different” that I did with Children of Time but rather the story leans into a bunch of classic space opera elements and the “found family” approach to characters in a very effective and entertaining way. It’s a wild, fun ride with some big emotional moments and some real depth to the universe-building.

I listened to the audio-book version narrated by Sophie Aldred (aka “Ace” for Doctor Who fans) who is excellent. I ended up walking extra kilometres because I was eager to hear the next chapter 🙂

6 responses to “Friday’s Rag Tag Crew: Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky”

  1. I really liked the funeral customs we get a couple of glimpses of – apparently evolved in response to the period of mass death in the background

    Liked by 1 person

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