The action in Dragonfly Falling picks up right where Empire in Black and Gold left off. And for those who haven't read Empire yet, this review will contain some spoilers about what has gone on before. The Wasp Empire has suffered its first major setback but they are unrelenting and press ever onwards, intent on dominating the Lowlands. In this book we are introduced to some new characters, including the much talked about Emperor of the Wasp Empire, a paranoid and bored man who wants to carve out a destiny for himself unlike any ruler before him in Wasp history. He is also willing to work with anyone and do almost anything to avoid what he sees must happen. Whilst juggling the politicking and press of the army, he pursues his own dark ambition which introduces us to a new mysterious Kinden and the hint of a dark, old and very dangerous power. Magic, in the main, is regarded as nothing more than superstition and sleight of hand. Kinden's Art is the only real reflection of power outside of what we would consider normal, but once again Tchaikovsky makes us question what we think we know.
Stenwold Maker has been talking for decades about the threat of the Empire, and sadly, his words have not been heeded. Long ago he witnessed the fall of one city, and now the Wasps lay siege to the Ant city of Tark. Ants are some of the best soldiers in the world. Their hive mind makes them implacable, a unified fighting force that is incomparable to anyone and yet as a race they are not able to adjust quickly and adapt to new ways. The Wasps have many artificers from many conquered Kinden, who bring deadly war machines the Ants have not faced before. Facing new tactics and a new way to wage war, the result is a messy conflict to put it mildly. Dragged into this maelstrom of blood and destruction is Totho and Salma. The former goes through quite an epic journey in this book, starting out from a dark place internally and by the end of the book he is actually in a worse position, stuck between a rock and a hard place. He make some difficult decisions, he effectively sells his soul, and yet finds joy and happiness in some unexpected places. Once again, Tchaikovsky offers no easy answers. Nothing is black and white, no characters are truly good or evil, and even those we may previously have disliked or have been encouraged to hate, are now objects of pity, respect and in some cases admiration.
There are a lot of other characters in what is an ever growing cast, who also move through important phases in their lives, so it is difficult to cover them all. Put briefly, Tynisa and her father, the amazing Tisamon, embark on a personal journey that will dramatically change both of them, but also our understanding of the Mantis Kinden. Salma follows his heart but the end of his journey is not what he or I was expecting. Stenwold must defend his home and rely on those, who at first, seem like some of the weakest allies he could ask for in a deadly conflict. Strength, heroism and sacrifice for the greater good is found in some remarkable places. A couple of other favourites of mine from this book were a new character called Parops who is a Tarkish Ant, and the slightly terrifying, Balkus, a Sarnish Ant and ally of Scuto, the Thorn Bug. Che and Archaeos seek new and old allies to stem the tide, as no one can ignore the Wasps anymore, and the story Stenwold has been telling is finally coming true. There are others I have not mentioned, but all our favourites are there, plus a couple of new faces.
Summarising this book is incredibly difficult as there is a lot going on and it is very much one chunk of a much larger story. Despite being a hefty tome I clawed my way through it in less than a week because I was just desperate to know what happened next to characters that I had grown to care about. Relationships are complex and realistic and all of the characters are very well drawn and unique. This is epic fantasy on a grand scale and I can see why Tchaikovsky mentioned in a recent interview it is likely the series will run to ten books.
New Kinden are introduced in each book, but we are never forced to read pages and pages of background, choking the plot and bringing the pace to a grinding halt. The information is introduced subtly, hinting at parts of the world we might never see, but Tchaikovsky has clearly thought about and planned out. If the story were to suddenly veer off in one unexpected direction, and sometimes it does, we do not fall off the map into a place marked only with a skull and crossbones. The history of the world is also introduced in a similar manner, carefully and when important to the story, and we have glimpses of what went before the current story. For me, this is how world building should be done, with care for the reader and with an eye on the pace of the story. This is a real page turner as the story grows more complicated and also more unpredictable, the lines between friend and enemy become blurred, and the future for the characters is uncertain. Terrible costs have been paid while others are well past due and it is very likely that some of our favourite characters will not make it. An excellent second chapter in a unique fantasy epic.