Arthur C. Clarke Award 2016 for Children of Time, British Fantasy Award 2017 for The Tiger and the Wolf, BSFA Award 2020 for Children of Ruin, BSFA Award 2022 for Shards of Earth, Sidewise Award 2021 for The Doors of Eden.
Ogres are bigger than you.
Ogres are stronger than you.
Ogres rule the world.
It's always idyllic in the village until the landlord comes to call.
Because the landlord is an Ogre. And Ogres rule the world, with their size and strength and appetites. It's always been that way. It's the natural order of the world. And they only eat people sometimes.
But when the headman's son, Torquell, dares lift his hand against the landlord's son, he sets himself on a path to learn the terrible truth about the Ogres, and about the dark sciences that ensured their rule.
Adrian Tchaikovsky needs no introduction, being one of the hardest-working, prolific and award winning British author of recent years. Here he turns his meticulous attentions to a dystopian future of genetic engineering that feels like a dark fairytale, in that inimitable Tchaikovsky style! – Lavie Tidhar
"A twisty social satire."– Publishers Weekly
"Tchaikovsky knocks it out the park… a gripping, sardonic story that sticks the landing perfectly."– Locus
"Tchaikovsky plays with the readers expectations, plucking at the strings of intrigue and thrusting out familiar allusions to lull us into a false sense of security… This novel can easily stand proud with dystopian novels such as Orwell's 1984 or Margaret Atwood's dystopian Maddaddam Trilogy."– Fantasy Hive
"Classic Tchaikovsky with its interwoven complex themes, but also departs from his previous works into something more naturally dark and raw."– Grimdark Magazine
You were always trouble.
Inevitable, really. And you weren't to know it, but you were following a particular trajectory. The Young Prince is always trouble. A youth, misspent in bad company and oafish pranks, who can mend their ways when adulthood comes rapping at the door, is more prized than any number of young paragons. People remember, but fondly. He was always trouble, they think, shaking their heads and smiling a little. But look at him now.
Look at you then, Torquell, the miscreant. You're hiding out because of your latest misdemeanour. Let's say this time it was the apples you couldn't resist, hanging so low on the bough in your neighbour's orchard. So, you and a couple of the boys who would always dog your footsteps were over that stone wall and filling the hollow of your smocks with fruit. And then the neighbour – not, after all, out bartering for eggs as you thought – caught sight of you out of her cottage window. Came out waving her stick and hollering fit to murder the lot of you, and you were over the wall and gone with your treasure. And the others had some feeble attempt at disguise, hoods up, broad-brimmed hats on, a scarf up past the nose despite the muggy heat of early autumn. But the downside of being the village's lovable rogue is that everyone always recognises you. You stand out in a crowd, after all, almost a head over the tallest of your reprobate cronies. And so you've gone to ground to go eat apples and kick your heels; to prepare your well-worn apologies before going to present yourself to your father and face the music. And you'll be made to go apologise, you know. You'll have some chore to do, in punishment. The village elders will shake their heads again and tsk through their teeth. But fondly, always fondly. They were young once, and you serve as a kind of magnified memory of all the trouble they never quite got up to but wish they had.
Right now, you're in the forest, because you know nobody will follow you there.
There are outlaws in the forest. Only a handful because the bounties of nature can't support many. Only so many meals in nettles and acorns, after all. Only a handful, too, because the Landlord has stocked the place with boar and deer, and while the latter are merely competition for edibles, the former are a real hazard. But there remains a determined little band of those whose villainies were too great for the fond boys-will-be-boys indulgence your own delinquencies inspired. Men and women who had a rare spark of anger to them, or who just couldn't live with their neighbours. One or two who, it was said, had done something truly awful, though usually those went further than the wood. Because the Landlord is always looking for an excuse to hunt something more interesting than boar. It's said those murderers who get tracked and caught are taken back to the Landlord's estates for another hunt, released into the grounds, and given a head-start before the dogs. The Masters do love their sport.
But none of that for you. You're not a villain, only a charming rogue. Nobody's going to give you up to the Landlord's justice for a few apples.
The leader of the outlaws in the wood is called Roben. And yes, he wears a hood, but only because the canopy isn't quite enough to keep the rain off. You and he have been thick as thieves for years, despite the fact your father's the village headman. Because, of course, he is. You're the young prince in miniature, after all. Although 'miniature' probably isn't quite the word for you. So yes, you keep bad company. Many's the time you've shirked chores or dodged justice to hide out in the woods with Roben and his constantly-changing cast of bad 'uns. Right now there are seven of them, and you're sharing the apples round the fire. Roben's lot are a starveling band, ragged in whatever clothes they have on their backs or have been able to steal. Some of them likely won't survive the winter. A merry greenwood fire is only romantic if you have a roof to go back to. They'll come out of the woods when the frosts start, and hope to find some sheep to share warmth with in a byre somewhere; perhaps a hayloft or a crofter's hut or some other retreat where they won't be discovered till spring begins to massage the world again. But right now your apples are welcome, and they tell tales around the fire: lies about what they did to get them thrown out, tall stories of far villages and further sights. The excesses of the Masters in their great lumbering revels. And you're one of them for as long as you care to share their fire, and then, towards evening, you make ready to go back and face the music. Unlike Roben, you, at least, have a bed and a roof waiting for you.
And you'd think they'd resent you, these outlaws. You'd think they'd hate you, for being the son of the man who's supposed to bring them to justice; for having everything they don't have. But somehow you're their surrogate son, too. And the apples were welcome.
"Bring me a good shirt when you come again, young Torquell," Roben jokes. "Bring me one of your cast-offs, even. I'll use it as a tent." For he's a scarecrow of a man, having survived seven winters in the forest, and you are the enviable prime of youth grown into a man's strength. Half a head, even a full head taller than the strongest of your peers. And, though you do have a temper on you, not a giant's strength used as a giant might but responsibly. Always happy to flex your muscles to lift a cart when it needs a new wheel, to carry a full barrel or fetch water. Not, in short, an ogre's strength, forever awaiting a victim. Such displays are the prerogative of the Masters, which nobody dares usurp.
And even as you're preparing to depart Roben's company, the cry goes up that there's traffic on the road.
For a moment you see Roben's eye light up with larcenous speculation. All who travel between the villages run the risk of having a certain tax imposed on them, and the likelihood of taxation and the severity of the duties imposed are entirely dependent on how many mouths Roben has to feed and just how hungry they are. They are, after all, outlaws. But the watchman has more to shout, because this traveller's no peddler or merchant come from some other village to barter their surplus. It's no journeyman artisan who might part with a few examples of their work or even mend a boot or stitch that shirt, in exchange for being allowed to progress without a beating. And the stories the robbers tell of their exploits always have the traveller feasting at their greenwood fire, but you know that's mostly wishful thinking. Any such traveller likely carries better vittles than Roben's people could ever lay out, and any such feast would be entirely under duress. But so the stories go, and you prefer them. Already you're starting to see the world in a certain way, with that overlay people paint where desperation and necessity get gilded over into stories.
But these travellers aren't the sort to be subject to Roben's customs duties. The messenger – a scrawny woman out gathering firewood – gabbles the rest of the tale. No human wayfarer this, but ogres and their retinue, headed for the village. The Landlord is making his visit, to see what the harvest will bring. To have his people assess tithes, that he might take his lion's share. Every field and tree, every herd and flock; the real tax that Roben's petty brigandage is a pale imitation of. And under no circumstances would Roben even tell a tall story about standing before an ogre and calling out his stand-and-deliver. The outlaws melt deeper into the trees, away from the road, so that not even the rumble of the Landlord's motorcade can disturb their fitful sleep. And you, young hellion that you are, must hotfoot it back to the village because your father will want you to hand, to greet the Master. The whole village must be there, and you cannot give him the shame of an absent son in the unlikely event the Landlord asks after you. You are trouble, yes; you are the great loutish rogue forever making a nuisance of yourself, and everyone in the village has a story of how you stole or trespassed, tricked or swindled. But fondly, and forgiven after the heat has cooled and fitting penance has been performed. The Masters do not forgive, and they are not fond. Even you know well enough not to offend them. Or you thought you did.
And, because you're you, you go and spy out the ogres as they come to your village.
You don't see them in person as they pass through the woods. Without a retinue to slow them down you'd never outpace them through the trees. The windows are smoked glass. The machine itself is dark metal. The wheels are huge, great rugged tyres of black rubber stippled with studs like knuckles for traction. It's part of the village's due to keep these tracks through the forest clear. Once every two months, everyone strong enough goes out with axe and saw and hacks back any new growth. Others bring in dirt to fill in holes. The children stamp the ground flat after. It's almost like a celebration, everyone coming together for the good of your Masters. And you know what? It rankled with you, even then. Even though your father was keen to impress on you how the world worked from the start. Even though everyone blesses the Masters and thanks the Masters for their protection and cheers when the Landlord comes to your village to take his due. And maybe you heard, a few times, some muttering in back rooms. Or maybe you listened to Roben and his people, glorifying their freedom from the yoke as they starved and froze out in the woods. But maybe it was within you from the start. Maybe that's what made you a hero.
Right now, the first incident in that hero's journey is waiting just past the horizon and you have no idea, no idea at all.
The Landlord's car growls on over the track, which is still rugged with roots and potholes despite the village's best efforts. A second car behind holds the Landlord's most favoured servants. There will be some inside the enclosed cab, but on the flatbed back are his beaters, a quartet of humans trusted enough to be given clubs. And everyone knows the Masters don't need people to protect them. Who'd be the fool to lift a hand against an ogre, even if they were so misguided as to resent the way things were? But sometimes the Landlord will want justice done, a transgression punished, and will not want to soil his own huge hands. Hence the beaters.
Also laid out on the flatbed, two corpses. The Landlord has been indulging himself on his way over. Deer, of course. Why else stock the woods with them, if not to take out a rifle and re-establish the old ogrish supremacy over nature? A doe and a buck, bloody where the shot went in. The Landlord is bringing the makings of his own feast.
And a score of other servants, walking alongside or riding ponies. You've often wondered what that would be like. They're huge beasts, those ponies, though not the size of the horses an ogre would ride. Ogre children train on them, you're told, but a grown ogre adult would break the poor things' backs. And the human riders are muffled up to sweltering point: heavy gloves, heavy britches to ward off a rash from the animal's bristling hide. Only an ogre can stroke that gleaming roan flank with bare-handed impunity.
The sound of the engine will have alerted your father and all the village, and you vaguely remember your old dad telling you the visit is expected. It's harvest time, after all, and so cometh all the business of taxes and assessment. A good year for the village means full pockets for the Landlord. It's his village, after all. Your father, the headman, is just managing it for him, taking responsibility for whatever goes wrong. He's tried to impose upon you the serious burden of the work given that it'll pass to you in time. But you're not the serious type. He despairs of you.
Not the serious type yet.
And they're all lined up to welcome the Landlord by the time the motorcade and retinue arrive. Your ogrish Master drives slowly between the houses of his subjects, the top of his car level with the sills of their upper-storey windows, and everyone cheers. Children have been given flower garlands hastily woven. The hands have been called in from the fields. Everyone has done their utmost to get into their Sunday best clothes, their churchgoing finest. And your father stands there front and centre of the throng looking desperately worried because his delinquent son is nowhere to be seen.
But you're the lovable rogue with perfect timing, and you can put a sprint on when you choose. So, just as the car is drawing up, just as the ponies are being reined in, you're there at his side. Even shrugging into a clean shirt, your face half-washed. The old woman who does your father's laundry tuts and spits into a hankie, cleans away the last smudge of trail dust, and then it's all faces front. Everyone cheers. Hooray for the ogres.
Servants bustle to open the car door – two of them, to haul it all the way – and a gust of cool air wafts from inside the vehicle. That ogre magic, just like the motive force that makes the car engine growl into life. Because they can do anything, the ogres. Sorcerers, so say the people. God's chosen, so says the pastor. The might of the ogres isn't solely contained in their great limbs and strength.
But that is what strikes the eye, when you see them. You, big and strong for a man, are used to weighing others by the amount of world they displace and the force they can exert. And when the Landlord, Sir Peter Grimes, gets out of the car, you cannot but judge him a great power in the world. If you are over six feet tall and your father five and a half, then Sir Peter is ten, easily. And vast, a great tun of a body, thick-waisted and heavy. A flat face that would look human if it weren't so big that it becomes just a great, jowly topography. The eyes seemingly squeezed half shut by the opposing pressure of cheeks and brow, though perhaps that's just against the brightness of the light outside of the car. And such clothes! Casual travel wear to an ogre puts all your village finery to shame. Such fabrics and shines, so silky and flowing that no loom could possibly have woven them! Such colours: slate grey and red-burgundy and gold. And when everyone bows before him, perhaps it's a relief. To have an excuse to take your eyes away from such opulence and such a vast mass of flesh standing there on two pillar legs.
"Tomas, as I live and breathe!" booms Sir Peter. "Come forward, Tomas. I trust the accounts are all prepared? You've taken census already?" Because when the Landlord calls, he expects to find everything in order. And it isn't just a matter of the village lined up and the children running forward with their garlands – all fielded by the servants who'll dispose of them later because the ogres can't be expected to deal with such things. It's a matter of having it all writ down, each bushel and basket, every laying hen, each of the hulking sheep counted on the hillside, every cow in the pasture. And woe betide the headman who cheats his Landlord, or even miscounts. There's always someone who will slip the word in some servant's ear, for preferment or for their children's advancement. A headman takes responsibility, your father tells you often, and there will somehow always be someone who feels that responsibility should be theirs.
But the village can't show that side of its dealings to the Masters, obviously, and so it's all cheering and garlands as Tomas, your father, smiles and assures Sir Peter that all is well. And inwardly, no doubt, he's fretting, because though the pastor taught you letters and numbers, it's a side of your duties you've shown no keenness for, and time doth march on. It would be no great consolation to him, of course, if he were to look into the future and see how hard you'll work at it in due course.
And then Sir Peter turns back and helps another ogre out of the car. This one is almost as tall but less grown into his bulk. A youth, perhaps no more than your own eighteen years. He has a face that's handsome, in the way that ogres often are before time and excess fill them out and cruelty engraves them. Except cruelty is already there on this giant lad's features and you mark it well. He looks over the gathering, all the people of your village, meaning most of the people you have ever met in your life. His expression can be best summed up as contempt. No attempt to disguise the curl of the lip, the incredulous is-this-it? of him. He's seen a dozen villages already on this little pilgrimage, and yours is nothing special. Sir Peter has dragged him from his estates and his ogrish pleasures for this.
"My son, Gerald," Sir Peter says, clapping the boy on the broad shoulder with a sound like thunder. "He'll be taking over from me in time. Thought I'd show him how it's done. Let him see who he'll be dealing with. And this is your own, unless I miss my guess." And a sizing up, then, because you are nine inches closer to his eye level than your father ever was, with perhaps a little growth left in you still. "Quite the figure he cuts," says Sir Peter, his eyes twinkling in their deep nests. Even in good humour his face can't quite iron out all those hard lines. And he is in good humour too. He doesn't register the sour, sulky look of young Gerald. He's doing his father-and-son-time bit, the lord-of-all-he-surveys patter, the benign dictator with absolute power of life and death over everyone and everything within a long ride of his house.
"A likely lad," Sir Peter proclaims you. "Mark him, Gerald. He'll be headman of the village, I'd guess, by the time I hand the business over to you. He'll serve you well, I don't doubt." All colossal joviality is Sir Peter Grimes right then. But Gerald is not. Gerald is bored and resentful, and you're put in front of him, and perhaps you become a stand-in for all the things provoking his ill humours then, and perhaps that's what contributes to what comes later.
There will be a feast, of course. The village opens its barns and larders so that Sir Peter can have his pick of all the good things. Everyone who's a proven cook will pitch in, and your father's house will overflow with guests as Sir Peter gets his knees under your groaning table. Everything that can be done with bread and vegetables and fruit, milk, eggs, and honey, will be carried out and set before the ravenous appetites of the pair of ogres. But ogres require more and different sustenance than regular humans, of course. No call to kill the fatted calf or have four men haul in a protesting sheep for the knife, though. Sir Peter has provided for himself with his hunting trip. You watch as the two stiff carcases of the deer are manhandled off the flatbed by the gloved hands of the beaters. Curious, because you've not seen such a thing often, you follow them in to your father's kitchen. A big kitchen, in the village's biggest house, but right now it's cluttered and you're an extra body, a big lad taking up room.
Sir Peter's chef is just a human, of course. There's no crossover between the Masters and mere servants. He's a plump little man, dressed in finer clothes than you've ever worn, now tying an apron about his waist and shouting at a half dozen other culinary servants. Your father's kitchen has become occupied territory. At the far end, the house's cook and maid are penned, trying to deal with their part of the feast in a cupboard's worth of space as the strangers take over. The rest of the feast – ogrish appetites being what they are – is being cooked up across the village, everyone doing their bit. But here, the chef is in command, and he'll brook no challenge to his minuscule authority.
And you might just have ducked out, gone round the front way to get into your own house, but it irks you. That this dressed-up dandy can swan in and colonise your home, no matter that he has the Landlord's writ about him. You always did have a temper, and a sense of injustice. While your father, as headman, heard complaints and made judgments under the sun, you had your own practices under the moon. When you knew some malefactor, greedy or cruel, who'd escaped accusation or wormed their way out of public show, you'd find some way to even the score. A little vandalism, a little theft, some prank that would, at least, humiliate them. For all you're a big lad, you can be subtle too, and you were always good at talking your peers into helping out. A troublemaker, but even when you yourself were up before your father, somehow everyone understood the good heart behind the rash actions. Perhaps that should have gone first in the litany of things that make you what you become. You always got away with it, before.
And so you go into the kitchen where the chef squawks and upbraids, and you pause to see how they skin and gut the deer, gloved hands working as fast and dextrously as they can, and the blood mopped off any bare skin before it can raise a rash. And then one of the cooks backs into you and drops a pan and the chef rounds on you. Your burly build does not intimidate him for one moment, little master, as he is, of all he surveys. "Out, you oaf! You peasant!" he shrieks, and you're laughing at him even then, already about to slouch out of the kitchen and find your father. But he's not done asserting his authority, and the laughter doesn't help, and he strikes you with the big wooden spoon he's been wielding like a sceptre. One, two, across the arm, and you barely feel it through your shirt. And even you recognise that your grin is a bit oafish by then, enjoying yourself too much. And then he hits you across the face with the spoon's edge, right in the eye.
Your temper flares, and you take the spoon from him and break it across your knee. The kitchen goes very quiet.
"This is my house," you tell the man. "You'll keep a civil tongue, when you speak to me or mine" – and you're taking on yourself your father's office, whether or not you're entitled to it. You remember Sir Peter talking about you filling your father's shoes, and perhaps that went to your head just a little.
And then Gerald is there.
You don't know why the Landlord's son is in the kitchen. Perhaps he's used to scrounging scraps from the servants like you, though likely with menaces rather than a winning smile. He has stooped in through the back door, ducking low and feeding his shoulders in sideways. Now he can't quite stand straight, head canted forwards under the human-scale ceiling. The ogre boy, looking from the chef to you.
"Castor, what's the problem?" His voice is a purr. He's already looked ahead and seen some fun to be had.
The chef stammers, and if you were sharper you'd see how very frightened he suddenly is, because you don't come to the attention of the ogres unless you're very sure no blame can possibly alight on you. "Master, this man, this man…" A trembling spasm of fingers towards you. "It is impossible to work while my kitchen is disrupted by such…"
Gerald Grimes lurches over, looming, grinning. And you were grinning at Castor earlier, sure enough, but your face never held this kind of malice. And perhaps there is a spark of commonality between you, ogre and human though you are. The difference is mostly that enough hands were on you in your childhood to temper your wilfulness. Gerald Grimes was only ever subject to Sir Peter. Other than that, his birthright was lordship of all creation.
But perhaps he senses that you are like him, just a little – some version of him not corrupted by the power he was born to, and perhaps that's why he decides to make you regret it.
"The headman's son," he says. And then, in a parody of his own father's voice, "Quite the figure he cuts. A likely lad. It's you I'll have to thank, is it, when I have to drag myself from cards and hounds to listen to you little monkeys jabber?" And he shoves you. Just a little, the first time. Cooks scuttle out of the way behind as you stagger.
You don't have a ready quip to defuse the situation, and Gerald doesn't want to be defused anyway. He wants to put you in your place. He wants to enact his frustrations after being stuck in a car for days, touring a succession of dreary little villages.
"You impudent little shit," he tells you. "Looking at my father as if your opinion's worth a damn. I should have the beaters whip you, out in the square where everyone can see." And you weren't looking at his father and he's not even using your contretemps with Castor as a casus belli. It's just him being fed up and wanting to let his temper off the leash, and you made yourself a target. And he shoves you harder, all that solid ogre strength, the sheer brute force of a man three feet taller and far heavier than you.
"Castor," he says, "have one of your monkeys fetch a whip. I'll show golden boy here just how it's going to be when we're both in our fathers' shoes."
The third shove comes in, slamming you against a wall, spilling pots and pans off a shelf with your elbow, and your temper finally finds its breaking point and you punch him in the jaw. And yes, he was hunched forwards so that jaw was very invitingly presented. Off-balance, perhaps, from pushing you. Mind so full of the thought of wielding the whip that he wasn't considering you might fight back. People don't, after all. Not against the Masters.
And he goes down with a roar, crashing back into the gore of the gutted deer, spilling bowls of blood, jugs of milk, scattering Castor and his minions like pins. And you've struck an ogre. You've struck a Master. You've done the thing no human may do.
For a moment the world is as horrified as you, frozen and aghast, and in that moment you flee from the kitchen, running like a child to find your father and confess to what you've done.