Book review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky
OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Adrian Tchaikovsky is the author of the acclaimed Shadows of the Apt fantasy series, from the first volume, Empire In Black and Gold in 2008 to the final book, Seal of the Worm, in 2014, with a new series and a standalone science fiction novel scheduled for 2015. He has been nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award and a British Fantasy Society Award. In civilian life he is a lawyer, gamer and amateur entomologist.
FORMAT/INFO: Elder Race was published by Tor.com on November 16th, 2021. It is 176 pages split over 18 chapters. It is told in alternating chapters between Nyr and Lynesse's point of view. It is available in ebook and paperback form.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: When a demon threatens her homeland, Lynesse Fourth Daughter, princess, secretly sets out to invoke an ancient compact, despite her family’s instance the demon is the imaginings of the peasantry. The sorcerer Nyrgoth has long remained a recluse in his tower, but he promised to aid the royal family should they ever need him. But what Lynesse doesn’t know is that Nyrgoth isn’t a creature of magic. He’s simply the last remaining anthropologist manning an outpost left by an advanced civilization. Nyrgoth’s mission is to observe Lynesse’s culture, to sleep in cryo for decades, and to wake to see how things have changed. But alone and cut off from home, Nyrgoth’s adherence to the rules of non-interference are wavering. So when Lynesse calls upon the promise he made to her ancestor, Nyrgoth decides to bend the rules juuust a little bit to see what this demon nonsense is about. Because surely there are no such things as demons, right?
Elder Race is an absolute triumph that balances in-depth characters, exploration of culture and language, and some incredibly creepy creatures, all in under 200 pages. For those just looking for a sci-fi adventure, they won’t be disappointed. The threat facing Nyr and Lynesse is strange and grotesque. The planet itself is a blend of a medieval society, but one that evolved out of a colony ship that seeded the planet centuries past. This blend makes everything the reader sees familiar, but slightly off. For reasons explained in the book, this society has regressed over time to one that holds faith in magic and superstitions, and Nyr’s tools must surely be great and powerful magic.
That disconnect in how characters see the world is the true magic of the writing. The chapters alternate between Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives, each offering very different views on events because of the respective character’s blindspots. Lynesse has an obvious understanding of her people’s ways and traditions, but doesn’t have a frame of reference to understand advanced technology as anything other than magic. Nyr, on the other hand, understands technology, but has a limited grasp of how to effectively communicate in the language of the people; he knows the vocabulary, but not the nuance. Some of my favorite moments happen when the end of one chapter overlaps with the beginning of the next, and we see the disconnect between what Nyr thinks he has said and what Lynesse has heard because of his lack of command of the language.
Nyr himself is a complex character, one wrestling with loneliness, depression, and loss of purpose. Because of an implant he has, Nyr can choose to shut down his emotions and operate by pure logic, creating subtle transitions within a single page as he shifts his word choice from conversational to a very clinical, scientific mode. This is more his book than Lynesse’s simply by virtue of the journey he goes through, but Lynesse is still a capable character wrestling with her own insecurities.
CONCLUSION: Elder Race is an absolutely perfect story that explores the dichotomy between observing a thing and truly understanding it, without ever once losing the feeling of adventure and mystery. If nothing else, come for the unsettling monsters, but I suspect you’ll stay as these two people struggle (and frequently fail) to understand one another and figure out their own futures.