Little-known fact: Arthur C. Clarke came up with his third law after reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race.
Okay, maybe Clarke predated Elder Race by a few decades, but the idea that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic has never been truer than it is in this slim little story that is at once a story of an extraterrestrial colony gone haywire and a sword-wielding fantasy struggle between good and evil.
Lynesse Fourth Daughter is the shame of her mother and the embarrassment of the royal family, and she’s also the only one who believes the villagers from the outer cities when they say a demon is destroying their crops and corrupting their livestock—and fellow villagers. Obviously, this is a great magic that only great magic can combat, so Lyn ascends the forbidden paths of the mountain to reach the sorcerer’s tower. Generations before, the sorcerer had helped her grandmother fight another such foe and promised his aid to her if she needed him again. Lyn just hopes he keeps his word.
Meanwhile, Nyr Illim Tevitch, a second-class anthropologist who has been stationed on this colony for almost three hundred years to observe but definitely not meddle in the affairs of the colonists on it, is always one misstep from the jaws of clinical depression. If he weren’t in suspended animation most of the time, he’d probably be even more depressed about the fact that Earth has apparently forgotten about him and this little planet and its anthropological oddities. Which is okay, considering what a bad job he’s been doing of keeping tabs on the population—and on the whole not meddling thing—but it still makes it hard to get out of “bed” sometimes, you know? When Lyn shows up asking, and then demanding, his help with some quest or another, he refuses. Helping her grandmother was one thing, but getting involved again?
Then again, he realizes, it’s something to do.
With a small and eclectic crew, they seek the great evil that is destroying cities and fusing rodents into strange relay towers transmitting signals to some unknown point. Through the trials and triumphs of translation, Nyr’s attempts to explain that he just uses technology and thus is not actually magic is turned into the mage-iest of mage speak, reinforcing Lyn’s conviction that he is an all-powerful sorcerer. But Lyn comes to realize, too, that perhaps even sorcerers have weaknesses, and that maybe going into battle with just herself, a longsuffering friend, a convicted criminal, and this mysterious sorcerer wasn’t the most thought-out plan.
I loved almost every single thing about Elder Race. Tchaikovsky has nailed both the heart of epic fantasy and space opera and mashed them improbably but so perfectly into really not that many pages. Although the pendulum swing of the alternating narrative styles (high fantasy and conversational sci-fi; third-person limited and first-person POV) was initially a bit jarring, I quickly came to look forward to the wildly different accounts of current events. The bright determination of Lyn’s narrative also contrasts with Nyr’s emotional wrestlings, which feel particularly resonant to someone reading in a world of pandemic and isolation and periodic existential crises (or maybe that’s just me).
The only thing I did not like about Elder Race was the fact that it was so short. Everything about it was so enjoyable that I wanted more, more, more. Having more, more, more also would have helped give a little more information about some of the intriguing worldbuilding concepts mentioned but definitely not dwelt on. Some things were blink-and-miss it, or explained but in such a way that I didn’t understand until I went back and reread it, which, by the way, I did immediately upon finishing the book. Most of the time, this is just something that would be nice but isn’t especially crucial to the telling or enjoyment of the story, with one notable exception.
Without giving too much away, I really would have appreciated more explanation of the demon. The amount we got was, I suppose, technically sufficient for the purposes of the plot, but seems incomplete given the import it holds on the story as a whole. I don’t need its whole life history, just a basic understanding of…well, that would be giving too much away. Anyhow, I am fully prepared to be content with the amount we were given in Elder Race if there will be a sequel that delves into it further, but it doesn’t like that’s in the works. (Tchaikovsky and Tordotcom, take notes.)
In short (pun fully intended), I adored Elder Race. If you need a quick fantasy and/or sci-fi fix, Elder Race has got you covered.