Empire in Black and Gold: Ought not to work

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt 1. Empire in Black and GoldEmpire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If all I had to go by was the cover art (Tor 2008 edition), the title of the book and the synopsis, I probably wouldn’t give Adrian Tchaikovsky’s debut a second glimpse. After all, the artwork fails to capture the eye, the book title is bland, and the summary makes the novel sound formulaic. I mean how many times have authors written about a powerful ‘Empire’ bent on conquering the world and the unlikely heroes determined to stop them? For that matter, how many novels feature youthful protagonists who become much more than they ever dreamed of, haunted forests, a spy who can steal peoples’ faces, rescuing characters from slavers, inciting a revolution and so on? These are all common fantasy conventions utilized by Adrian Tchaikovsky, not to mention the requisite world map, hefty page count, and inevitable sequels. Yet, Empire in Black and Gold is much more than a traditional epic fantasy and readers would be making a big mistake by overlooking this spectacular debut

So what makes Empire in Black and Gold special? Well for starters, it’s the setting. Unlike a lot of fantasy series that take place in a pseudo-medieval world, the Lowlands and its surrounding environs owe more to steampunk and the industrial age than it does Camelot. So don’t expect castles, wizards, knights in shining armor, or dragons. Instead, look for artificers, secret spy sects, dualing societies, the Olympic-like Great Games, gangsters, cities fueled by commerce and industry, and such technological advances as orthopters, lighter-than-air fliers, repeating crossbows, grenades, automobiles, engine-mills, and a lightning engine locomotive. Mr. Tchaikovsky does incorporate a few medieval concepts into this world, including magic, but such aspects are notably understated. In fact, the majority of characters in the book grew up with the belief that magic is not real — that science and logic governs the world — so it’s interesting to see how they react when sorcery is introduced into their lives.Shadows of the Apt Book Series

What really sets apart this setting from other fantasy worlds however, is not so much the world itself, but the different races inhabiting the world. By that, I’m not talking about elves, dwarves, hobbits, trolls, orcs, etc. I’m instead referring to the simple, yet ingenious idea of insect-kinden. To break it down, insect-kinden are humans, who long ago adapted to the prehistoric insects that terrorized their world by adopting their traits. For instance, Ant-kinden operate as a hive-mind, Wasp-kinden can fly and use stingers, and Mantis-kinden are deadly warriors, blessed with prodigious speed, skill and such natural weapons as spines jutting from their arms. The technique by which the insect-kinden are able to accomplish such feats is simply known as meditation:

Meditation was the Ancestor Art, the founding basis of all the insect-kinden. Whether it was the meditation to make the Fly-kinden fly, and the Ants live within each other’s minds; to make the Mantids swift, the Spiders subtle, meditation was the Art that lived within them all, waiting to be unlocked.

Personally, I love the concept of insect-kinden. It immediately gives the book a unique flavor and the potential of this setup is just endless. I mean how many different kinds of insects are there in the world? Just in this book alone, we get to meet Beetles, Spiders, Mantids, Wasps, Dragonflies, Ants, Flies, Scorpions, Butterflies, Grasshoppers, and Thorn Bugs. And who knows how many others Tchaikovsky has waiting to be revealed in the sequels. Centipedes perhaps? Mosquito Lords? Regardless, there’s much more to the insect-kinden than just a cool concept. Tchaikovsky has really fleshed out the insect-kinden to the point where each kinden not only has their own distinctive physical traits, but also personality characteristics, history, beliefs, prejudices, etc. Even better, he’s created a whole word of insect dynamics like the contempt they feel for halfbreeds, the hate shared between Spiders and Mantids, the disparity between the forward-thinking, technologically-driven Beetles and the mystical Moths, and so on. Of course, for all that insect-kinden might be different from you and I physically and in other areas, they are still human and act accordingly. So expect insect-kinden to fall in love, to feel jealousy, anger, grief, to sacrifice themselves, betray one another, and to indulge in all sorts of other compelling human drama, which is just accentuated by their kinden backgrounds.

The novel’s strongest characteristic as a whole however, is its balance. By this, I mean most fantasy novels are usually stronger in certain areas. For example, one book might feature great characterization and worldbuilding, but comes up short in the story department. Another may be well-written and entertaining, but lacks imagination. And so on. Then there’s Empire in Black and Gold, which doesn’t suffer from any glaring weaknesses or isn’t dominated by one attribute over another, but instead is just an incredibly well-rounded novel. Sure, the insect-kinden and the technologically evolved world might immediately stand out to the reader, but they are complemented by a plot which is gripping, intelligent, and action-packed. While the book may feature some familiar story elements, Empire in Black and Gold is quite a departure from dark lords, prophecy, and the chosen one, and keeps readers on their toes with an unexpected blend of intrigue, politics, warfare, and emotional drama — which in turn is balanced by exciting pacing.

Characters, meanwhile, are written with depth and compassion, and contribute to the story’s effectiveness since you care about what happens to them. And providing the glue to the entire book is Tchaikovsky’s consistent, if not economical, prose. Granted, some of the background history is a little vague like how the kinden were first created, the oft-mentioned Bad Old Days, and the Age of Lore; there are times when POVs suddenly switch characters without warning; religion in the world is surprisingly unexplored; and a few surprises are easy to figure out; but overall, Empire in Black and Gold has little to criticize and much to admire.

For every over-hyped debut novel that is released each year, there are always at least one or two titles that just don’t get enough attention. In 2007, one of those highly underrated debuts was Felix Gilman’s Thunderer. This year, could it be Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Empire in Black and Gold? That question remains to be answered, but as of now Tchaikovsky’s debut has received little fanfare despite being one of the best first novels that I’ve read all year. In fact, I strongly believe Adrian Tchaikovsky is already on the same level talent-wise as such rising fantasy authors as Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, Daniel Abraham, Mark J. Ferrari, and David Anthony Durham. Enjoying their level of success is a different story altogether, but I for one am extremely excited by the potential Empire in Black and Gold offers, and sincerely believe that Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt is a fantasy series to watch.

~Robert Thompson


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Adrian Tchaikovsky Shadows of the Apt 1. Empire in Black and GoldI’ll be honest; I struggled with the beginning of this book. I even tried to pass it off to other reviewers. I felt that I wasn’t jiving with the whole premise. I kept reading because I recognized quality writing and hoped that in itself would endear me to the story. Well, it did. I was so glad I didn’t set this one down. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s characters and world grew on me and I finished the last ¾ of the book in half the time it took me to read the first ¼.

Empire in Black and Gold, at its heart, is very much an epic fantasy. You have a band of heroes from various backgrounds coming together on a quest to stop the conquest of a brutal warrior race, hell-bent on destroying everything in their path. There are sword fights, magic, and exotic beauties. To these classic tropes, Tchaikovsky adds steam engines, flying machines, universities, and the sciences. It’s the weird mix of epic fantasy and more modern elements that gave me such a hard time at the start.

The world Tchaikovsky creates is complex. All the myriad races that inhabit his world are based on a kindred insect. For example: Mantis Kinden are a proud and lean fighting race. They have spurs of bone that protrude from their arms. They are genetically predisposed to blood lust, which gives them special abilities. Beetle Kinden are smart and good with their hands. They can sometimes even fly and see in the dark. These abilities are not necessarily magic, but gained through genetic heritage and a form of meditation. The line between “natural abilities achieved via meditation” and “magic” is confusing and not exactly clear. That may have been the author’s intention, since many of this world’s inhabitants do not acknowledge magic at all. Sprouting wings and firing balls of energy are perfectly acceptable, but scrying and mind reading are just not within the realm of their logic. All these concepts are thrown at the reader right at the start, so it can be difficult at first to get into the flow of the novel. But once you get past the initial learning curve of Tchaikovsky’s world, Empire in Black and Gold turns out to be a wonderfully unique and exciting place to be.

The characters are as diverse as the races they belong to. They each carry with them the baggage of their heritage, but as the story progresses they each grow and change based on the experiences they encounter. I found myself frustrated by the beetle’s lack of imagination, and frightened by the mantis’ lust for violence. These challenges grow the characters in emotional and surprisingly physical ways.

If you are growing a little tired of the medieval sword-and-sorcery style fantasy world, you should certainly give Empire in Black and Gold a read. It’s a unique piece, and the beginning of an ongoing series. I found it enjoyable and believe that most any fan of epic fantasy will find something to like here. The story is continued in Dragonfly Falling, which is due to release in the States this April.

~Justin Blazier


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEmpire in Black and Gold by Adrian TchaikovskyTHE SHADOWS OF THE APT is one of those series that has a bit of everything. The racial set-up seems to come from New Weird territory; the denizens of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s world are many different races, each with the characteristics of a different insect. Thus, the Beetle-kinden (each race is a “kinden”) are the engineers of the world; the Ant-kinden are excellent soldiers because they share a single mind under battlefield conditions; and the Butterfly-kinden are extremely beautiful, rare and magical. Then there are the steampunk elements, such as the heliocopters and the “automotives,” which travel on four legs, just like those doomed war machines in The Empire Strikes Back; one wonders how a society that clearly has gears has failed to invent the wheel. There is also straightforward fantasy storytelling, which involves an empire attempting to broaden its boundary and enslave even more species than are already under its iron rule.

It ought not to work. The series should fall of its own weight. But somehow, everything comes together in one great big comfortable mess and captures the reader, beginning with the first in the series, Empire in Black and Gold.

The real key, I think, is that the characters are so vividly drawn that the reader falls in love with them. Stenwold Maker is an elderly Beetle who saw the city of Myna fall to the Wasp-kinden — that is, to the Empire — in his youth, and has spent his life trying to make certain his own race does not fall into slavery before the rapidly advancing war machine. He has made speech upon speech to the legislature, taught history at the university and attempted to sway young minds to his cause, and, more to the point, maintained a network of spies in countries and cities closer to the borders of the Empire so as to be warned long in advance of a Wasp attack on his own people.

But Stenwold isn’t so parochial as that. Collegium, from whence he hails, is known for being open to all species, and even to accept (with considerable reservations) half-breeds. One of his students is Totho, a cross between an Ant and a Beetle, and especially gifted at mechanical engineering. Tynisa is his ward; she is a beautiful and treacherous Spider-kinden. His niece, Cheerwell or Che, is of full Beetle blood but has never been able to access her Ancestor Art — apparently a sort of maturation that allows one certain abilities that are inherent to one’s race, such as the ability to sprout wings and fly (yes, that’s literal). The fourth in Stenwold’s band is Salma, a prince among the Dragonfly-kinden. Each has a distinctive personality, with his or her own special interests, worries and, ultimately, plot: the group is divided up this way and then that, with the threads of the story traveling across many lands and involving many more characters.

Thalric is one of the most interesting characters in the book, though he is of a type: the member of the Empire who is starting to doubt his role as the dutiful servant and merciless soldier and spy. He claims to value the Empire above all else, but putting children to the sword doesn’t sit well with him, and he isn’t too certain about slavery, either. Although he’s a fairly standard character for an Empire-based fantasy, his depth of insight is compelling.

The story itself is pretty standard: there’s an Evil Empire that must be fought, but no one with political power in the main characters’ world will recognize the threat. The good guys must find a way to make the threat obvious to their compatriots, and must prevent the war from finding their homeland before their politicians wise up. Skullduggery, treachery, negotiation, and political shenanigans predominate. There are also the mandatory confrontations between bad guys and good guys in both a threatening situation that fails to ignite and in a peaceful setting where the enemies are revealed as just folks — and each comes to have a grudging respect and even a degree of admiration for his or her adversary — before the ultimate battle that ends the book.

In addition to a conventional plot, there are some serious world-building problems here, despite the generally interesting milieu. I’ve already talked about how odd the absence of a wheel is in this culture; this becomes even more confusing with early talk of a railroad connecting two large cities — an engine that runs on a track can only have wheels and not legs, true? More than that, the weapons of war are strange. Why, in a society that can plant explosives at the front gate of a city, and that has grenades, and that has nail guns apparently working on a pneumatic system, are there no machine guns, cannons or similar weapons? If you have explosives, you have gunpowder or the equivalent, don’t you? Why, then, would you rely primarily on swords and other sharp edges, and engage in primarily hand-to-hand combat rather than the more distant wars more common to 20th century Earth? Rapiers seem to appear because they are more romantic than guns, and for no other reason.

Fundamentally, though, Empire in Black and Gold is a good beginning for an epic fantasy that promises all the pleasures one usually finds in such books. This series offers nothing too unusual or too challenging, but pleasant, even compelling reading for fans who can never get enough of thick books full of battles and love affairs.

~Terry Weyna


Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian TchaikovskyHaving just ended a period of forced fantasy abstinence due to other factors, I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s debut novel a refreshing change from the sword-and-sorcery I usually find myself reading. Not to say that Empire in Black and Gold couldn’t be construed as sword-and-sorcery, but it’s definitely highly original. Robert’s review really resounds with me on this point — this novel is delightfully unique, and both the world building and characters are very diverse. Though at first the concept of insect-kinden threw me off a bit, the idea has grown on me the further I get into this series. I do feel the need to mention that this isn’t a talking animals book — I keep imagining actual spiders and ants fighting instead of spider-kinden or ant-kinden humans. With regards to the characters, I agree in large part with Terry’s analysis; the psychological composition of the characters was highly enjoyable and I found that Tchaikovsky does an excellent job making his characters understandable and conveying their emotions to the reader.

Another part of what made this book so powerful was its somewhat limited scope. It’s reminiscent of Glen Cook’s The Black Company to me because the focus of Empire in Black and Gold is very much on the nitty-gritty details of violence and the personal impacts of violence rather than on an overarching power struggle (though that is the plot of the novel). I feel that the literary choice to make Empire in Black and Gold a quasi-steampunk novel with strains of black powder and military fantasy also helped make the scope more powerful.

For me, though, there’s a rather large flaw with Empire in Black and Gold: the introduction. Justin mentioned this in his review, but I think it was a much bigger problem for me. The structure of the novel starts with an opening chapter set around 18 years in the past before shifting to the present and beginning the plot in that time period. After the first chapter, I found the shift to the present abrupt and confusing — it was difficult for me to see how the first chapter related to the rest of the plot until much later on in the work. Furthermore, Tchaikovsky doesn’t do a particularly good job of easing the reader into the world of Empire in Black and Gold. Throughout the first third of the book, I was confused because there were many concepts that seemed new but weren’t adequately explained to me. So overall, from the perspective of a reader on book four of the series at the moment, I think I find some of the later books more convincing and engaging than this one.

~Kevin Wei


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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JUSTIN BLAZIER (on FanLit's staff September 2009 – September 2012) Like many fantasy enthusiasts, Justin cut his teeth on Tolkien. Due to lack of space, his small public library would often give him their donated SFF books. Justin lives in a small home near the river with his wife, their baby daughter, and Norman, a mildly smelly dog. He doesn't have much time for reviewing anymore, but he still shows up here occasionally to let us know how he feels about stuff.

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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She longs to be a full-time reviewer, critic, scholar and writer, but nonetheless continues to practice law as a civil litigator in California. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, the imperious but aging Cordelia Louise Cat Weyna-White, and a forever-growing personal library that presently exceeds 15,000 volumes.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is a Math-Stat and Economics major at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea (a href="http://www.fantasyliterature.com/fantasy-author/funkecornelia">Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of SF/F at the ripe old age of 5). Kevin loves epic fantasy, military SF/F, New Weird, and some historical fantasy; some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. In his view, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he's extremely particular about this last bit. Outside of his SF/F life, Kevin loves politics, the startup lyfe, non-fiction, and more. You can find him at: kevinlwei.com

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2 comments

  1. It’s interesting to see your different “takes” on the work.

  2. This is a series I need to come back to. Book 2 I remember being quite special, but the series lost me around book 3 or 4 for reasons I can put my finger on. I should revisit them. Thanks Kevin for the review and to Marion for commenting and bringing these books back to my attention.

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