FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Even though I have read only a small percentage of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s works, I can see from this limited sample that his imagination can take very different roads from one book to the next, and Firewalkers is a prime example of this.

In a not-so-distant future in which climatic changes have wrought havoc on Earth, the planet is divided between areas where floods from the melting icecaps are submerging most of the land, and areas – like the equatorial belt – where desertification and rising temperatures have transformed once lush jungles into arid wastelands. The equator is still a sought-after location, though, because it’s the place where the anchor points for space elevators have been built, bringing people to the safety and comfort of the huge ships in construction. That is, those who can afford it, which is only a privileged few. The others try to eke a meager existence by servicing the crumbling infrastructure that supports the anchor and elevator and the arrays of solar panels feeding energy to them.

In one such settlements live the three main characters of the story, young people whose job is to cross the scorching, dusty desert to service and repair the solar panels located in distant areas that were once inhabited and have now been abandoned to the encroaching sands. These Firewalkers, so called because their young bodies are better suited to withstand the broiling heat of the desert, regularly endure the extreme environmental conditions to earn the relatively higher pay such jobs can bring in, risking their lives each time to provide for themselves and their families.

Nguyēn Sun Mao is the descendant of Vietnamese refugees escaped from the floods that obliterated their country and he’s the point man of the group; Lupé is of African descent and represents the engineering genius in the team, as she is able to repair or jerry-rig practically anything; then there is Hotep, so called because she protects her fair complexion under mummy-like bandages, and she is the technical expert. The three of them have been working together for some time and forged a successful unit, so that they are often given the more difficult assignments – and the most dangerous of course.

This latest assignment brings them toward a rarely – if ever – explored area, one where what remains of the palatial mansions of the rich crumbles under heat and neglect, and where unknown dangers, and even monstrous creatures are rumored to dwell. The three Firewalkers’ journey soon evolves into the search for clues to unveil a mystery, and in the discovery that something does indeed lurk in the deep desert, but it’s nothing they would have ever imagined.  The story takes on a sort of quest-like flavor, with our heroes facing known and unknown perils as we get to know their personalities and quirks, while being shown how the world we know has been changed by the damage humanity inflicted on it.

The ground crunched lifeless beneath his feet […] the sun the head of a white hot rivet driven in by some celestial smith.

The story’s main focus is on Mao, a boy in his late teens possessed with the maturity of a far older man, because the kind of life he and his crewmates lead tends to burn people away at an accelerated rate: there is little room for hope in this world, and yet we see him try to do his best in the worst of circumstances, trying to take some pride in what he does and exhibiting a natural, if laid back, quality of leadership that brings his two companions to trust him and abide by his decisions no matter how uncertain and dangerous the path. Maybe because

[…] it was Mao who had most experience walking on the surface of an alien world, even if it was Earth.

Lupé, as befitting an engineer – even one as self-taught as she is – is both efficient and business-like, never allowing dangers, either real or imagined, to get between her and the machinery she is repairing or adjusting. As the one in her family with the best-paying job, her young shoulders are burdened by the weight of keeping them as comfortable as possible, and she translates this responsibility to her traveling mates as well: there is one scene in which she keeps servicing their transport’s life support even as some problem approaches, and we see her keeping up the work with the steadiness of a much more seasoned veteran, something that is both admirable and heartbreaking.

And last, but not least, Hotep: she is the wild card of the group in that she was born in space as one of the privileged, but was sent down to Earth – literally discarded – by parents who could not bear her psychological problems and quirky, non-conformed behavior. Her prickly character, like the bandages she wears, is a way of masking the deep pain of abandonment, the resentment at the sheer, heartless injustice and betrayal she was subjected to.  It’s through Hotep’s situation that we can perceive the cruel divide in Earth’s people, because if her parents hardly flinched at condemning their own daughter to a short life of hardships and suffering without a qualm, what about the few privileged that could escape from the dying planet and are living in comfort and luxury while the rest of the population slowly dies of heat, thirst and diminishing food?

The themes developed in this story are of course climate and environmental changes, and the social upheavals following them, but there are other elements that are equally intriguing, like the construction of the massive ships in Earth orbit – probably more arcologies than mere vessels – and the space elevators connecting them to the surface. What I found truly fascinating are the remains of the previous civilization – our actual civilization, I believe – and the way the protagonists observe them as though they were relics from a more distant past, and that they are unable to connect with for lack of common references. There are several instances in which Mao & Co. talk about tv shows from the past – still being aired – and how the people depicted in there, their way of life, look more alien than extraterrestrial creatures: this, more than anything else shows us readers how our world has changed from the present conditions.

Firewalkers is a dense book indeed, in the sense that it holds many concepts in a relatively small number of pages, and that’s its only flaw from my point of view: this kind of story should have deserved more space to “breathe” and fulfill its amazing potential. For this same reason, the ending felt to me somewhat abrupt and less satisfying than I would have expected from the initial buildup, but still it was an engrossing read, and a further incentive to explore Adrian Tchaikovsky’s other works.

My Rating:

26 thoughts on “FIREWALKERS, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  1. Just tell me that this isn’t another YA book and I’ll add it to my TBR. And yes: while demographers are crying murder about China’s declining birth rate, it’s an example the rest of the world should follow suit, and take into account a short lived span of an aging population.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve a huge backlog of Tchaikovsky’s books to clear before I get to this one, but I’m heartened to read another positive review of his current work, after several very critical ones… I’ll add it to my wishlist.

    All the things you mention though… it really seems to be a description of a much longer novel. I feel he publishes too much lately… we need to check his social media, perhaps he bought a new house or sth 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. LOL on the new house! Or maybe he found a way to stretch the day to 48 hours… 🙂
      There are several new books from him, indeed, and right now I’m reading the ARC of Shards of Earth, the first volume in his new space opera series, and so far it looks promising.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the sound of this, it’s a novella right? I’m already planning ahead to Sci Fi Month (!) and I intend to catch up with some Tchaikovsky at that point. This may be one of them😁

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve read very little of Tchaikovsky so far but I hope to read much more. Really glad to hear this is another good one. He seems to love the novella format and I wonder if he’s using it to explore these many different ideas/genres, perhaps taking a break from longer works of a different style. My reaction after reading another of his novellas was wanting more in that world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would not have minded a longer book for this because there was so much left unsaid: still, it has a good pace and it delivers an intriguing story. Keep some water handy if you decide to read this one: you will need it – badly… 😀


  5. I have read only one book by this author, but I have almost all the things he wrote on my TBR, and I really hope to read a least a couple of them this year. I have said the same thing in 2020,but I hope that if I repeat it enough it would, eventually, come true!!
    But, all this preamble aside, I never heard of this one before. It goes without saying that I want to read it, too. Even if I am sorry for the “compressed” feeling of it, it seems just intriguing and with some interesting characters!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I learned about this from the review of a fellow blogger (what else? LOL) and it sounded intriguing, so I added it to the TBR.
      I know what you mean about making good propositions and then failing to keep them because of the sheer number of promising books calling to you with an irresistible siren song… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m really glad you liked this one. And yes, I do know what you mean about wanting a longer story – I came away from this one thinking that I would. But… then I got to thinking which of the plotlines would I want elongated? And I came to the conclusion that it was about right for me.

    I think I have the answer to the uptick in his productivity. Adrian has always also had a ‘day job’ in addition to writing – so I’m guessing that he spent 2020 on furlough. And writing…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that explains his increased production! I wasn’t aware that he also held a day job…
      As for the story, I would not have minded a little more information (just a little, not a whole info-dump) about how Earth ended up in the situation presented in the novella, but when all is said and done yes, the story is good just as it is 🙂


  7. Probably not for me but I do want to check out something by him eventually as a lot of my friends have great things to say about his work. Glad you enjoyed this one even if it was a bit dense. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I haven’t read this one yet – sounds promising, and your rating also makes me hopeful. My most recent Tchaikovsky was pretty good as well – review coming up tomorrow – so maybe he’s hit his groove again after a few duds 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I love this review so much. I’ve not read the book but your exploration of the characters and how they fit into the world of the story is so good! I’ve actually still not read any Tchaikovsky but from reading reviews I’m always amazed by the range of his imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. He certainly can belt out the books, it’s difficult to keep up. Glad to see you liked this even if it did feel a little too dense – the exact opposite of Bilbo’s butter spread too thinly over bread – this sounds like trying to smear a whole pack of butter onto one tiny crust.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL! I love your Tolkien-inspired (what else, though? 😀 ) analogy!
      On the other hand, I just finished Tchaikovsky’s newest endeavor – Shards of Earth – and it’s a perfectly balanced story, both in content and number of pages. So I have no further reason to complain… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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