The Scarab Path is the fifth volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and it also marks the beginning of its second story arc. It is very much a traditional Epic Fantasy series… but with a difference; the difference being that there is change in the world Tchaikovsky describes, and even more unusual, it is technological change. (I even have a nagging suspicion all of this might not really be Fantasy at all, but turn out to to Science Fiction in the end. This is just a hunch though, with not much evidence in the text so far, so I am keeping an open mind about it.)
Along with the usual stuff about Evil Empire wanting to conquer the world there is another conflict going on here that has quite different front lines, namely between magic and technology or, in the series’ terms, between the Apt (those who are able to use technology) and the Inapt (who somehow are constitutionally incapable of comprehending even simple mechanics like opening a door latch). Admittedly, that division might not have been thought all the way through by Tchaikovsky and in some of its details does not make a lot of sense, but does provide the novels with a fascinating concept that possesses lots of potential for dramatic conflict. The series has been growing better with each succeeding volume until events culminated in a breathtaking finale in the fourth volume, ending the first story arc.
It was to be expected that after all the momentous events in Salute the Dark, things would calm down somewhat in the follow-up, but I admit I was surprised at just how much of a break to what went immediately before The Scarab Path represents. We do meet many familiar faces, but quite a few remain conspicuously absent, and events in this novel appear to have hardly any bearing on the main plot at all – it is as if, like Khanaphes (the city where most of its events take place) in relation to the rest of the world, The Scarab Path seems to be located on the edge of the series’ map, accessible from the centre only by long and circuitous paths. This is not Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, though, and while nothing much happens to move the overarching plot forward, there is quite a lot happening in unrelated events, making The Scarab Path, if not a stand-alone novel, then a story arc all by itself.
It is quite an enjoyable story, too; and while the world-building is a bit lazy here (Tchaikovsky quite blatantly lifted the city and its culture from Ancient Egypt) it is used quite effectively to give a vast and atmospheric backdrops to events as they unfold, slowly at first, but relentlessly gathering momentum, sweeping everything along in their path and finally flowing into a massive, vividly described siege.
But Tchaikovsky can not just spin a ripping yarn, he is also very good at moral ambiguity – a thread that has been running through the whole series is the question of just how far the ends justify the means, and what making oneself into a means does to a person, even if that end is a good one. His characers often have to face hard decisions and it is by no means clear if there is a right choice. The author does not pull any punches in this regard, and in consequence the novels can pack quite an emotional wallop – people do terrible things in the name of a perceived good in this series, they sacrifice not just themselves but others for a higher end, and as much as Tchaikovsky makes us sympathize with his characters, he never lets us get comfortable with the moral dilemmas they face, resulting in some very heart-wrenching moments not just for the characters but also for the readers. And in this unflinching moral tension is where I think the main strength of Shadows of the Apt lies, even more than in its (undoubtedly fascinating) world-building or the (undoubtedly riveting) plot.