Following after The Scarab Path (which I read a few weeks ago), The Sea Watch is the sixth novel in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. Like the previous novel, it only focuses on a small part of the total cast and is quasi-standalone, i.e. forms a complete story arc of its own within the framework of the greater plot.
While The Scarab Path took place in a new location but was peopled with many characters familiar from previous novels, The Sea Watch reverses that pattern and begins in a familiar location but with mainly new characters as protagonists. However, there is a very marked shift in the novel’s second part, and with it, The Sea Watch becomes a tale of two cities – Collegium, home to Stenwold Maker, one of the series chief protagonists and this novel’s main character, and Hermandyre, a city located at the bottom of the ocean. In a way, it is even a tale of two worlds, so different does the world below the surface of the sea seem from that above it.
The novel’s first third, set in Collegium presents the reader with business as usual – we’re still in the aftermath of the war against the Wasp Empire, the peace is still uneasy, and everyone is jostling for advantages and strategic placement in preparation for the rekindling of the conflict that everyone knows is unavoidable. Stenwold Maker is trying to do his best to forge an alliance that will be able to withstand the Empire when it returns, but he is about to learn the hard way that even apparent allies can not be trusted. Things start to go very wrong indeed, leading to a desastrous finale at the end of the first part and the introduction of an unexpected change of location.
The second part of The Sea Watch takes place at the bottom of the ocean, and it is here that the novel really hits its stride. Tchaikovsky has been praised for his imaginative world-building before but nothing he has done in the previous novels quite prepares the reader for the realm of the Sea-Kinden whose scenery the middle third of this novel spreads out before the reader. It is a very fascinating realm, weird and bizarre, and populated by alien creatures, but also very human, its denizens driven by the familiar passions of greed and fear, violence and love. The picture Tchaikovsky paints of this world in the depths is of something truly rich and strange, and while his canvas is large he does not lack attention to detail – the individuals we meet are well-drawn, their motivations appropriately enigmatic for people who make their living in this alien, inimical world, but still human enough to be relatable (with the exception of one particular Kinden, but those are meant to be incomprehensible to outsiders).
(A quick note on the term “world building” here, as I have noticed that my use of it seems not quite congruent with common usage. Usually, the term appears to refer to internal coherence and plausibility of a novel or a series – good world building, in that sense, would be if the author draws maps and takes care that they make geographical sense, creates a history for the world, thinks up a functioning economy and generally ensures that everything in the world works – or would work, if it wasn’t fictional. World building in this sense indicates a realistic approach. – In contrast, when I speak of world building I tend to have nothing as pedestrian as plausibility in mind, but rather mean the scope and originality of the imagined world, the soaring of the author’s fancy – good world building in that sense would be if the world created is a bold invention, if it moves away from the world we know towards something new, something colourful and strange that strikes us with its alienness (think Jack Vance and you’ll probably have an idea of what I’m aiming at here). World building in this sense is indicative of the fantastic. – Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive, but to find them both realised in equal measure in a single work or series is very rare – Karl Schroeder’s Virga series comes to mind, but not much more – and if I have to chose between the two, I will most of the time prefer the latter (which, I hasten to add, is purely a matter of taste). In order to avoid confusion, as I think it is clear that the two meanings are quite distinct, I should probably use a different term. I have yet to come up with anything snazzy (suggestions welcome!), so for the time being I will stick with “world imagining”.)
The world imagining in The Sea Guard, then, is nothing short of fantastic, impressive in its imaginative if not factual coherence and breathtaking in its scope and originality. One almost ceases to care about the plot altoghether while one is busy admiring the vistas of wonderous seascape at the bottom of the ocean and the bizarre creatures passing through it – I for one could easily have spend a whole novel in this place, and I hope Tchaikovsky will return to this location in the course of the series. The novel, though – and I am very tempted to say: unfortunately – moves on, and in its final third connects the separate locations of the previous parts in a quasi-dialectical synthesis. Obviously, there was no way to avoid the plot moving back to the land, but this reader at least was rather sad to leave the sea floor behind and thought that the novel became a bit bland and less colourful for it. Still, another excellent installment in a series that seems to just get better as it goes along.