Shards of Earth

Adrian Tchaikovsky
Shards of Earth Cover

Shards of Earth


Thinking about this review I am really mindful that my rating and thoughts on the book are a bit of an outlier, and having finished the book a few days ago I am still thinking quite hard on how I feel about it.

I should get this out of the way immediately - it is not a 'bad book'. It has a complex story, a varied cast of characters, a wonderfully imagined universe and focuses on some really big ideas. It's one of those books which I think if I read in another context I would probably enjoy far more. And here is the reason for my low star rating - despite all the ingredients being there for a great book I can honestly say I didn't really enjoy reading it. For most of the book I wasn't having fun and it felt like a slog.

This book was going to be my main holiday read, you know holiday reads where you are sat by the pool chilling and relaxing? Well my holiday reading was largely snatched during times of child wrangling or reading in little bits before others woke or sat in an airport lounge at 4am whilst the kids harassed me... So maybe I wasn't in the best place for a weighty epic space opera that I needed to focus on - maybe it's the wrong book at the wrong time.

I guess another factor is that Adrian Tchaikovsky's 'Children of Time' was one of the best science-fiction reads I have read in the last decade at least - I adored it! And, many of the things in that book were present here, and I am reflecting that perhaps my expectations were raised so high. I was expecting another classic and found myself rather underwhelmed. I think what I am trying to say is, 'if you like the idea of this book go and check out some of the 4 and 5 star reviews first'...

So what is 'Shards of Earth' about? Well, it's a big space opera set after humans have made contact with other alien species and colonised other planets. As per usual, there are alliances, wars etc. but then everyone comes together to defend themselves against Architects which are a moon sized abstract intelligence that seemingly doesn't even notice the species they obliterated by essentially turning their planets into art forms. They are repelled when Intermediaries - a kind of psychic space navigator manages to make the briefest of contact with them and the war is over. Fast forward eighty or so years and the grand alliance has broken down and humans and aliens are back to their jostling for power.

The story focuses on the crew of a salvage ship - effectively contracted quasi-freebooters of different species who run into trouble on a job which suggests the return of the Architects. On the ship is the Intermediary who helped end the war with the Architects and a member of the Parthenon - a species of genetically reproduced vat women modelled on a Spartan warrior race who was his former lover. Although the book follows the crew around, really the story is about these two.

There are some really interesting themes in here which I enjoyed, especially the nature of the warrior women race. They are assumed to be men-hating warriors who want to enslave humanity. They say they are the defenders of humanity and want to end the violence and self-destructive behaviour of the rest of humanity. Whilst they are depicted outside their community as warrior space nazi clones, inside the community they are a hierarchical organisation which is supported by nurturing, respect and support and community. They are depicted in the novel as more or less alike and stunningly beautiful and athletic, with a suggestion that their emotional, romantic and sexual needs are mostly within their community, although not exclusive and not mandatory. I quite enjoyed Tchaikovsky's laughter at patriarchal society and their paranoia that every time women come together they are clearly a) lesbians b) man hating and c) up to something nefarious. The real world parallels are obvious and I am sure many of us have seen those kind of conversations before. You see it all the time when marginalised people come together with their community to support each other - it is so often viewed as a plot to destabilise the world...

And yet, the Parthenon are not without critique, particularly within their own community (and anyone who reads this thinking they are men-hating hasn't understood this book...). A race of warrior women genetically engineered to be 'flawless' clearly has problems in the nature of how we view beauty, how we view strength and diversity (the women are all a certain shade which implies multiple racial heritages make up the gene pool). One of the most powerful parts in the book is when a character who is not able bodied finally snaps and there is a clash - in a race of perfect women - where is the space for women who are not 'perfect'. One could view this in a context of abortion or how we view disability and whilst I won't engage with those debates here there is something to consider about increased genetic selection and what that will mean for us as humans and diversity. So the book gets points for not only reflecting on diversity but also for addressing it intelligently and considering various 'what if's' from a considered point of view.

I also reflecting on the nature of freedom, of chattel servitude, and also the nature of 'higher' intelligences and how they interact with other life forms. The casual genocide of the Architects makes me think on how much of humanity views the animal kingdom and how perhaps they are screaming at us for us to notice them...

Those looking for descriptions of various alien cultures and civilisations will find it here. Some of the time I was going, 'ohh that's clever' and at other times I was thinking, 'I am not really sure what is being described here' - perhaps that is a reflection of reading when tired, I am not sure...

My main criticisms of the book sadly are two fold. First, I never really cared about the characterisation. There is character death in the book but I never found myself being particularly bothered and if any of the other characters died I think I wouldn't have bothered either. I didn't particularly 'like' anyone in the book or cared what happened to them - they seemed like 'big ideas' rather than rounded characters.

Second, I didn't like the pacing. The book is long, it takes time to get going. Quite often long chapters seem to go nowhere and we are planet hopping, almost self-contained 'episodes' to gradually reveal the overarching plot. It tries to be 'grand' and 'punchy' at the same time and fails on both counts. Some of the action sequences are okay (and can be quite gory), and sometimes there is a lightness and humour in proceedings to break things up but it didn't make me smile to often. I think the book would be better as a shorter book as a more faster paced space opera but I don't know if Tchaikovsky has it in him because of all the big overarching ideas that make up the book.

I still want to read the follow up to 'Children of Time' and I will continue to read more of Tchaikovsky's work, but I just didn't think this book is for me.