I have loved all the Tchaikovsky sci-fi I’ve read, but this is my first time reading his fantasy stuff. The world building reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay (setting it up so every piece has its counter), but with teeth. And the immersiveness reminded me of New Crobuzon. The first time I read China Mieville’s The Scar, I would be surprised when I looked up from the page and didn’t see ocean. But this is all Adrian’s own, and has his wonderful stamp all over it.
Ilmar is a city invaded and occupied by the Palleseen Sway, a force who thinks they’re “perfecting” the world by making everybody else do things their way. They have departments like Correct Speech and Correct Everything Else, and if you don’t do things Correctly, you get hanged. It’s been three years since the takeover, and pockets of resistance are getting itchy, ready to act.
Complicating factors include a variety of refugees from other places the Sway has already invaded, and a mysterious portal through the woods that is guarded by the Indwellers and some seriously gnarly beasties. The Palleseens want to get their perfecting mitts on whatever is beyond the woods, but one of their higher-ups is eaten on his attempt to go through the portal early in the book, setting off a search for the assistant who got away, and the magical talisman that was supposed to keep him safe but got stolen before it could do its job.
Tchaikovsky has a brilliant ability to solidify and make you care about characters in just a few brush strokes, so it never feels overwhelming when he keeps adding characters. There are multiple resistance factions, different pockets of refugees, a sad priest who is the only one left who believes in his cranky god, a couple of university students ready to do something Important with their lives, and a whole section of town where nobody goes (the Reproach) because frakking scary things happen there. There is a ton going on, but it all moves smoothly and you can feel the pieces slotting into place, even when you don’t know what the end game is.