The Bear and the Serpent is the second in Clarke Award-winning Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall series. Where the first novel found us following a very personal journey of self-discovery, the second novel is far more macro in scope. This is a story of an entire world populated by disparate tribes, coming together to fight a common enemy… at least, that is what it is all leading to. There are elements of the more personal with a regional dispute between who is the rightful ruler, but on the whole, this novel is concerned with bigger issues than its predecessor. With this shifting focus comes both boons and pitfalls.
‘Why else strive for dominion, if not to enjoy all that life could offer? That had always been the Dragon philosophy.’
The novel follows two main plot threads. On the one hand, we have Maniye Many Tracks joining her southern friend Asmander in the fight to re-instate the ruler he believes has the right to rule. Meanwhile, in the Crown of the World, Loud Thunder works to bring all the clans together to fight a common enemy. In both ‘camps’, prophecies and premonitions of a dark future dampen spirits. Can old enemies put their differences aside in favour of the greater good?
‘Two Kasra jostling buttocks for one throne.’
One of my most common complaints about later books in a series is the amount of repeated ground covered to refresh the forgetful reader’s memory. I was pleased to see that The Bear and the Serpent included a recap chapter before the main text begins, bringing everyone up to speed on the story so far for each of the plot strands. Unfortunately, this handy guide did not mean an escape from unnecessary repetition of events that had gone before. This seemed like a bizarre editorial choice – one or the other as an approach, surely? With a recap like this, it is easy for readers who read the previous novel some time ago to reacquaint themselves with the narrative, while those who are reading them in quick succession can skip it. This was a definite missed opportunity to claw back at clunky call backs and exposition.
Tchaikovsky sacrifices pace for clarity on many occasions during the Echoes of the Fall series. And while I appreciate a well thought out world with clear mechanics for the magic, it does err on the side of over explanation. Thankfully, the second book in the series does this less-so, with the mechanics of ‘Stepping’ already clearly defined in the first book, but any pace recovered here is lost by the endless battle scenes and internal monologues of characters telling us exactly what they feel, why, and what they are going to do about it (before they go ahead and do it). Fight scenes are tricky enough to do well when used sparingly and nigh on impossible to keep interesting when done over and over again through the course of an already long novel. There just isn’t enough built into the scenes to make them remotely interesting. I found myself skipping pages and pages of blow by blow fight action on a regular basis.
Another issue with pacing comes from the lack of central driving force. In the first novel, Maniye’s desperate journey to escape her father and childhood tormentors creates tension and a neat focal point for the sub-plots to split off from. In The Bear and the Serpent, however, there is none of this driving tension. The battle between opposing Kasra’s (political factions, in other words) never quite finds the emotional resonance the author is hoping for. Meanwhile, Loud Thunder’s quest against the ‘encroaching darkness’ of the Plague People is undermined by the vague depiction of the enemy – where elsewhere Tchaikovsky over explains, here he is strangely and frustratingly coy. The Plague People are potentially the most interesting piece of this novel, but he never explores them in any depth.
‘Loud Thunder had brought the war, but not the war’s end.’
Despite my issues with pacing and exposition, there is still a lot to like buried in The Bear and the Serpent. The world is an interesting and unique place, with fascinating mythological influences. It is reminiscent of much of Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy work and her fascination with Native American history and folklore. Tchaikovsky incorporates this with the continued theme of names – the importance of names and the power they can hold. I thoroughly enjoy this twist on common fantasy tropes and do want to learn more about the world.
The clan set-up narrowly avoids the problem of stereotyping all characters of a certain clan all having a specific personality type, but it does escape most of these pitfalls. The author explores the idea of ‘typical’ personality traits for each clan as cultural norms, then subverts them with each of the main characters we see. These characters all have their own drives and foibles irrespective of the clan to which they were born, even if the characters themselves sometimes use their clans as excuses for certain kinds of behaviour.
The book ends on a bit of a bum note, however. There are very obvious and inelegant ‘wrapping up’ scenes at the novel’s conclusion, where the characters go through their list of things to do and where every character was heading off to before the next book begins… This was unnecessary and felt rather condescending to the reader. Sure, it might annoy people less than a cliff hanger style ending, but tying it all up in a neat little ribbon does the series no favours either.
Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky has both spread himself too thin over his ensemble cast and scope of the narrative. What the first novel set up as an impassioned personal story, The Bear and the Serpent undermines with too much focus on larger battles and political machinations out of the control of the individual. For the third instalment, I would hope to see a little more in the way of personal, emotional ties to the story, but I fear it will do what most final novels in a trilogy do – focus too much on a massive, world-changing battle, without a grounding in the micro struggles of the characters we have come to care about.
Verdict: The Bear and the Serpent is tough going. There’s too much granular action without the plot to have earned it. A great world set-up is wasted with a story that is long-winded and awfully paced.