Book Review 2010 #21: Empire in Black and Gold

Next up, the start of a novel and original fantasy series.


It’s an audacious idea that you might laugh at if I describe it in print. Here goes.
On a parallel world, giant insects grew to enormous size, threatening mammals, reptiles, and primitive humans in the process. In order to adapt to this threat, tribes of humans form mystical alliances with these giant insects, taking on their traits and abilities even while remaining human.
Thus is Shadows of the Apt, the start of a new series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
This world is moving slowly into an age of science, as the apt (technologically able) varieties of the Kinden, the Beetle, Ant and Wasps have become ascendant over the magic and superstitious Mantis and Moth Kinden. So ascendant in fact, that the Wasp Empire has decided to conquer the world, with flying soldiers that can both fight well and use magical bursts of energy to attack (think Janet Van Dyne from the Marvel comics universe). The Wasps are intent on subjugating all of the Kinden, of every variety, to their yoke.
Opposing the Wasps, recognizing the threat for what it is, is an old Beetle college teacher who doubles as a spymaster, who has gathered and trained a diverse set of Kinden with the goal of using them to build a resistance to the city-state gobbling Wasps.
But the Wasps are onto Stenwold, and his young charges find themselves facing the might and danger that the Wasps represent far sooner than they expected…
I probably would not have picked up this book, with this gonzo (but brilliant premise) if I didn’t trust the publisher. Prometheus/Pyr books has a reputation for a strong hand on the tiller, and if he was willing to bring the novel over from Britain to America and publish it, that gave me hope it was worthwhile. I am glad I picked it up on that basis.
Its hard to classify this novel. It’s clearly fantasy, given the powers of the Kinden, but the burgeoning of rapidly developing technology (trains and even better, AIRSHIPS) give a steampunkish feel to this universe. And there is apparently fading but real magic in this world, too, as exemplified by the Moth Kinden.
More than the background stuff. The characters really shine. Human with insect like traits and proclivities, they are in the end still human, with human failings, foibles, motivations and personalities. From Stenwold Maker, college teacher and spymaster, to his coterie of family and proteges, and those they interact with in trying to oppose the Wasps, each character is well developed, has a story arc, and develops over the course of the story. And, the sign of a very good writer, Tchaikovsky manages to humanize the evil Wasps as well, providing characters on their side of the conflict with recognizable motivations and personalities, rather than faceless adversaries.
The novel simply works on a number of levels. Magic, technology, interesting characters and at the core–an original idea. We see a number of Kinden, and get mentions of several more. Characters embody, and transcend, those Kinden stereotypes.
I will pick up Dragonfly Falling, and continue to read of the Kinden.
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1)