Between introducing the uniquely imaginative concept of ‘Insect-kinden’ and showcasing a well-rounded display of characterization, world-building, story, pacing and prose, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold was not only an impressive debut, it was also a memorable start to an exciting new fantasy series. A direct continuation of Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling is basically more of the same, just on a larger and more entertaining scale.
Like Empire in Black and Gold, the highlight of Dragonfly Falling is once again the Insect-kinden who, with their diverse Arts and philosphies, continue to lend the saga a distinctive quality despite utilizing such familiar fantasy themes as war, slavery, conspiracy, racial/culturual barriers, etc. For example, battles and sieges are given a whole new dynamic because of the different ways that each race fights — the Ant-kinden use their hive-mind to give them an advantage in tactics and coordination; the Wasps ruthlessly use their superior numbers and Auxillian slaves to overwhelm the enemy, yet are also forward-thinking in exploiting the weaknesses of other races; the Moth-kinden use magic; and the Beetle-kinden use their artificers to forge new weapons of war. Other examples of the uniqueness that the Insect-kinden bring to the books are the way Bee-kinden can be forced into slavery just by the capture of their Queen and Spider-kinden who are masters of deception and subterfuge, which makes loving one extremely dicey, especially if she’s already betrayed you once. As far as new Insect-kinden, Dragonfly Falling introduces Woodlouse-kinden, the giant Mole Crickets and the vampire-like Mosquito-kinden. Unfortunately, we don’t get to learn too much about them, although I expect the Mosquito-kinden will play a much larger role in future volumes. On the flipside, we do receive a somewhat deeper look at Spider and Mantis-kinden cultures.
Story-wise, with the groundwork already laid out in Empire in Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling starts out fast and furious and doesn’t really let up for the entire book. For the most part, Dragonfly Falling concentrates on the Wasp Empire’s invasion of the Lowlands including seiges at Tark and Collegium, the takeover of Helleron, and the Battle of the Rails; but at the same time there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well — the Wasp Emperor’s desire for immortality, a power struggle among the Wasp Empire’s CIA-like Rekef sect, a Dragonfly-kinden’s quest for revenge, Salma finding the Butterfly dancer Aagen’s Joy, Tynisa embracing her heritage, and a magical ‘Shadow Box’ just to name a few.
Of the characters, Stenwold Maker, Che, Tynisa, Tisamon, Prince Salma, Totho, and Thalric remain among the series’ most important players, but — with the exception of Stenwold, Totho, Thalric and possibly Salma — they take a backseat to a ton of new characters that could be just as, if not more, important going forward. Among the new faces, I particularly enjoyed the storylines involving the haunted Felise Mienn, the Mosquito-kinden Uctebri the Sarcad, and the Colonel-Auxillian Dariandrephos, the Wasp Empire’s most gifted artificer. Strangely, the Moth-kinden Achaeos had a really small role in the book, but it looks like he will play a much bigger part in future volumes, along with a certain Spider spymaster…
The setting meanwhile, with all of its technological advances, remains fantastic with the book introducing all sorts of new toys like submersibles, one-person winged fliers, a sandbow and Totho’s devastating invention, the snapbow — a firearm basically — which promises to not only change the face of the war, but the future of the world. Magic in the meantime, remains subtle, but the Darakyon are still around, Uctebri supposedly has the power to grant Alvdan immortality, and there’s that aforementioned Shadow Box. In short, you just get the feeling that magic and technology are going to soon collide with one another in this series with catastrophic results.
On the negative side, Dragonfly Falling is plagued by pretty much the same problems that Empire in Black and Gold was including lackluster background history, POVs that occasionlly switch between characters without warning, a narrative that is at times predictable, and prose that is a bit bland — even if it is consistent and accessible. However, with Dragonfly Falling’s stronger and more engaging story, a better cast of characters, and the book’s more epic scope, I found such issues to be even less of a nonfactor than it was when reading Tchaikovsky’s debut.
Overall, Dragonfly Falling is another impressive offering from Adrian Tchaikovsky which builds on the solid foundation established by Empire in Black and Gold, while setting the stage for what promises to be exciting and dark times for the rest of the Shadows of the Apt series. Personally, I can’t wait for more.