With the Wasp armies' advance stalled by the arrival of winter, Stenwold Maker takes advantage in the lull to send his agents on dangerous missions. Achaeos, Tisamon and Tynisa are dispatched to Jerez, a marsh-town on the edges of the Empire, in pursuit of the stolen Shadow Box, which holds an evil that cannot be unleashed back onto the world. Elsewhere, Che and Nero are sent to Solarno, a city on the distant Exalsee, which is also under threat from the Empire's expansion. However, the feuding political factions of Solarno seem rather unmoved by the threat they face.
Blood of the Mantis is the third volume in the Shadows of the Apt sequence and the penultimate book in the opening story arc. In this novel, Tchaikovsky abandons the large-scale war stories and huge battles of Dragonfly Falling to return to the back-alley intrigue and politicking of the first novel in the series. He also reigns in the book's length, delivering a relatively slim 400-page novel that certainly benefits from a greater focus following three storylines in tandem: events in Jerez, the intrigue in Solarno and Stenwold's attempts to forge the Wasps' myriad enemies into a single, cohesive force. This growing focus means some characters get short shrift - Totho and Salma's storylines are put on the backburner for now - but those characters who are featured benefit from more page-time and development.
Tchaikovsky also (for the first of at least two times in the series) widens the scope of the worldbuilding, introducing a whole new area of the world (the Exalsee or Sea of Exiles and its surrounding city-states) and establishing a whole new set of characters and politics. This is achieved reasonably well, although the Exalsee cities aren't vastly different from the established Lowlands locations and the blindness of Solarno's rulers to the Wasp threat is perhaps a little too reminiscent of Collegium's similar scepticism in Empire in Black and Gold. That said, some of the new characters, such as Taki the pilot and Cesta the assassin, are well-drawn and welcome additions to the (already very large) cast.
The book is certainly enjoyable and page-turning, with the weird and steampunk elements raising what would otherwise be a pretty standard epic fantasy to some interesting new heights, but the Shadow Box is a disappointingly traditional 'evil magical talisman of doom' and it's hard to invest too much in that storyline, especially as Jerez is not a particularly interesting locale (though some late developments near the end of the book may cause some reappraisal of that). Another weakness is that Thalric has, extremely reluctantly, become an ally of the good guys and immediately lost some of the elements that made him more interesting in the first novel. Stenwold's attempts to merge disparate allies into a cohesive alliance against the Wasps is also rather over-familiar and perhaps too easily achieved given the daunting difficulties he faces.
Blood of the Mantis (***½) continues to develop this enjoyable series and benefits from a shift in focus away from the battle-heavy second volume. However, some weaknesses mean that it continues to fail to fully achieve its potential. The book is available now in the UK and USA.