Empire in Black and Gold
Pyr, 2010 (orig. UK 2008)
Empire in Black and Gold the first in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, is a book that has been on my radar since it first released over in the UK back in 2008. Thanks to the fine folks at Pyr we have a nice, shiny, US edition in trade form (the UK first printing was a mass market) with some splendid new cover art that is far more dynamic and lively then the original printing. While I don’t typically harp on covers all that much that last is important since I think the US cover (both for this volume and the rest of the series) does a better job of conveying the unique elements of the series.
While the general plot of Empire in Black and Gold didn’t blow me away completely with it’s somewhat familiar format, a rag-tag bunch of somewhat mismatched heroes are one of the only things standing between the disparate and fractious governments of their homeland and an implacable conquering foe, the texture of Tchaikovsky’s world, the inspiration behind the peoples that populate it, and the characters he creates all serve to lend the story a uniqueness it might otherwise lack. While fantasy has always been comfortable with tying its worlds to a fairly consistent range of animals: wolves, dragons, crows, stags, etc. etc. Tchaikovsky instead draws inspiration for his world from a new place: arthropods (particularly insects and arachnids).
If you’ve ever been intrigued by the brief glimpse of the insect-themed Moranth from Erkison’s Malazan‘s series Tchaikovsky’s world takes those brief glimpses and weaves them into a fascinating culture that is different from anything I’ve read on the market. While it is possible to draw analogy between the various insect peoples and familiar fantasy races/archetypes (beetles/dwarves, spider/elf, etc.) by and large the history and talents Tchaikovsky gives the characters of the world make those analogies tenuous and unreliable. The ant-kinden are martial and telepathically linked; the spider-kinden are weavers of plots, charming, and deadly; the beetle-kinden are thick-skinned, stalwart, and innovative; the mantis-kinden with their deadly arm-claws are fearsome warriors; etc. Tchaikovsky has taken physical traits, and even common symbolic interpretations from insects and arachnids and woven them into men and women.
While the world-building is original and oozes cool from every corner Tchaikovsky also manages to craft a handful of interesting and diverse characters. The major plot of the story really focuses around a couple of young friends gathered together by Stenwold Maker, a beetle-kinden who years ago witnessed the terrible power and fury of the wasp-kinden Empire. Che Maker (Sten’s beetle-kinden niece), Tynisia (Sten’s spider-kinden adopted daughter), Totho (a half-ant, half-beetle), and Salma (a dragonfly prince). This diverse group has been gathered by Sten to serve as spies and help stave off the advance of the wasps. While I found the initial introduction of these characters and novel’s opening chapters a bit slow a sudden bout of violence kicks things into high gear and from there the novel doesn’t really let up. However, I should say that while I loved the tense moments on the airship they were, along with the escape, a bit too similar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; though still enjoyable.
Of our handful of main characters I though Che and Tynisia were the most interesting of the bunch. Che in particular thanks to her strange mix of self-doubt and unquestioning bravery was a pleasure to read and her growth over the course of the novel was handled quite nicely; though the novel ends before the reader gets a full grip on just how that growth has changed Che. Tynisia is a different beast entirely, beautiful and quite deadly she is in many ways the direct opposite of the stalwart and straightforward Che. The greatest character moment for Tynisia come from her tension between her morality and a recently discovered lost for violence (in addition to more spoiler-ridden elements that occur later on). Though, in truth, perhaps the most interesting character of all is a villain: the wasp Captain Thalric. Thalric puts a human face on a heretofore faceless threat and is wonderfully conflicted character that is one of the more likable antagonists I’ve read.
Empire in Black and Gold is an action packed beginning to what looks to be a fantastic series. Despite some initial issues with pacing once the action started it kept on going culminating a rather epic final battle that was followed by some surprising plot twists setting the sequel. While I found Tchaikovsky’s characters are passable, and in some cases downright engaging for those noted above, I thought that they didn’t quite live up to the same level of quality as the world they exist in. The fresh setting is what is truly engaging for me here and the hints at deeper mystery over the course of Empire in Black and Gold have me excited to find out what happens next. Thankfully the 2nd (Dragonfly Falling) and 3rd (Blood of the Mantis) books are already out on shelves now so if you’re looking for something a little bit different to try you can’t really go wrong with Empire in Black and Gold.