Jun 29, 2010

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt, Book 1) - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of those names that everyone hears about these days, part of what I like to call the New Wave of Fantasy. His Shadows of the Apt series got a lot of praise both in the UK and the US, so I decided to give it a try.

The world Tchaikovsky paints is one where prehistoric giant insects threatened humanity with extinction. To escape that fate, humans developed a form of meditation that gave them physical and symbolical traits of the insects that surrounded them. Thousands of years later there are numerous human races called "kindens". Each kinden has the traits - or Art - of the insect they are connected to. Some of those traits are inborn, others - like flight or the ability to see in the dark - have to be achieved through meditation during childhood. Not everyone has the same abilities, and not everyone is equally strong with their Art.

For centuries the Elder races have ruled unopposed - the Moth-kinden mystics, their Mantis-kinden warrior servants; the subtle and manipulative Spider-kinden, and the graceful Dragonfly-kinden. But then, five hundred years prior to the story's beginning, the lesser kinden - the slaves of the Elders - started a rebellion. Both an industrial revolution and a renaissance, it freed those kinden from the yoke of their masters, but it also revealed another difference between the different races of the world. The Elder kinden turned out to be "Inapt" - incapable of comprehending the mechanics of even the simplest mechanism. Soon the new "Apt" kinden ruled unopposed, while the Moths and Mantids withdrew into secluded places, their old ways and mystical beliefs laughed at by the new masters of the world.

The story begins in the Lowlands, where city states thrive, bound by commerce and the occasional bickering. At the center of it all is the glorious city of Collegium - a place of learning and invention, of commerce and philosophy. But now a new force has risen in the west - the Empire of the Apt Wasp-kinden. They move like an unstoppable tide, using their deadly Art and engines of war, as well as the numerous enslaved races under their command. The Lowlands refuse to acknowledge this threat, preferring to pretend that life will go on as before, and even going so far as to supply the Wasps with weapons for their far-away wars. Only the Beetle artificer Stenwold Maker realizes the true nature of the invaders. After witnessing the fall of a Beetle city beyond the western border of the Lowlands, he starts to build an army of spies, while at the same time his warnings against the Wasp Empire fall on deaf ears.

It is now seventeen years after the battle of Mina. The Wasps are at the door of the Lowlands, but they come under the banner of peace and commerce. And Stenwold is not ready. What's worse, the Empire seems to have taken interest in him. And in the center of the intrigue, assassinations and conspiracies are thrust four students of the Great College - the Beetle-kinden Cheerwell (Che) Maker, Stenwold's niece; Salma, a Dragonfly-kinden prince from the faraway Commonweal; Totho - an Ant/Beetle halfbreed artifcer; and the Spider-kinden Tynisa - Stenwold's adopted daughter of mysterious origins. They have to rely on each other to escape the clutches of the Wasps and somehow prevent them from invading the Lowlands.

Empire in Black and Gold is a great sword and sorcery adventure set in a New Weird/Steampunk world that sometimes resembles Ancient Greece, and sometimes - classical pseudo-medieval fantasy. World-building is one of Tchaikovsky's strongest points. From the mechanical factories and forges of dirty crime-ridden Helleron to the shadowy streets of conquered Myna, to the mountaintop holds of the Moth-kinden, the world of The Shadows of the Apt is fleshed-out and intriguing, while still making it clear that we haven't seen even a tenth of it.

The race concept is also one of the best I've seen in years. Even though there isn't one non-human race in Tchaikovsky's world, it is still filled with humans more fantastic than any classical fantasy race. No elf could hold a candle to the shadow-dwelling Moth-kinden sorcerers, or their daylight brothers, the enchanting Butterfly-kinden. What's more, it is a world where it is normal for any human with a flying kindred-insect to be able to fly himself, even though Beetles are notoriously bad at it while the little Fly-kinden are the best fliers in the world. That makes for some pretty spectacular aerial battles in addition to the amazing ground action.

The characters are also very well thought out. Even if they are somewhat two-dimensional - with most of them you know where you stand from the beginning - there is a lot of thought put into their actions and behavior. I like imagining better versions of situations with intense dialogue - it's just the way I'm wired. It's not rare that an author makes their characters act or speak stupidly for the purpose of plot-movement. Not so here. I was really impressed when Che - a mousy little creature of middling talents for the most part - stood up to a Wasp officer interrogating her with the following (I rephrase obviously): "Why won't you just let it go and let me leave? I know nothing. I am just a student that has been thrust into something monstrous. What threat could I be to your Empire?" What's more, this conversation did have impact on the story later on. Kudos to Tchaikovsky for being able to make his characters behave convincingly without the story suffering for it!

What Empire in Black and Gold isn't so good at is the pacing of the story. It takes more than a hundred pages to actually get going, and then sort of stumbles in many directions at once, not really getting to the point until the very end. That is not to say the novel is boring. Even if we forget the amazing world-building, the book is still packed with action and adventure. It is just a bit aimless for a while, but I guess that's ok for the first of four parts.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Adrian Tchaikovsky's debut work. It's scope is vast, the world-building is of the first degree, the characters are likable and interesting. And what's even better - Empire in Black and Gold is considered to be the weakest in the series so far. Personally, I can't wait to get my hands on Dragonfly Falling.


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