Cannonball Read III: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Empire in Black and Gold is very hard to pin down. It is a piece of epic fantasy, complete with clashing kingdoms, valiant warriors and good versus evil. It is also a story of spies and political intrigue. And the world is a strange and wonderful hybrid of classic medieval kingdoms, post-renaissance sensibility and industrial age technology. The mash-up of setting tropes is jarring at first, but becomes endearing as more of the world and the setting is explored/explained. At the end I was forced to admit that what I thought was going to be a junk novel turned out to be a pretty spectacular bit of alternative fantasy.
At the core of Empire and the larger series, Shadows of the Apt, is a race of humanity that has tapped into the giant insect species that dominated their world. Mankind has become segmented into tribes (or perhaps breeds), called kinden, that have a link with a particular bug. Through the Ancestor Art, humans can assume aspects of their kinden insects, gaining strength, speed, flight and other more esoteric abilities. The Wasp-kinden, who serve as the primary antagonists, are a breed that can fly and fire a potent 'sting' of mental energy. Other tribes have different abilities, such as the Ant-kindens' telepathic abilities, or the Moth-kindens' ability to see in the dark.
Tchaikovsky is fairly insistent that the Ancestor Art of the kinden isn't magic. More like a combination of genetics and meditation that produces reliable supernatural abilities. Magic does exist, but modern society in the Lowlands thinks of it as nothing but trickery and illusion. There is a split between some of the different breeds of humans, the Apt and the Inapt. The Apt are the cornerstone of civilization because they have the capability to design, understand and use complex machines. The Inapt are somehow genetically unable to comprehend anything more complicated than a wheel and axle. More crucially, they can't even operate basic machines such as crossbows.
There is a surprising amount of history backing the setting. The current state of affairs was brought about by the Apt kinden overthrowing the oppressive Inapt races that used to run the Lowlands. But the status quo is now under threat, and with the major powers turning a blind eye to their impending doom, its up to the spies and idealists to save the rest from themselves.
The narrative line adopts a number of PoV characters to follow around for the duration of the book. Most of these are Beetle-Kinden Stenwold Maker 's most recent band of handpicked wards: his nice Che, the mysterious Spider Tynisa, the half-breed artificer Totho, and Salma, a refugee prince from the Dragonfly Commonweal. As protagonists, they have an interesting combination of perseverance and general ineptitude that comes from insufficient training. This results in the plot being derailed into a rescue mission, instead of a full scale open conflict with the Wasp Empire. Rather than being the start of the war everyone knows is coming, Empire serves as a staging ground for a multi-faction political masterpiece that resembles Europe before World War Two.
Empire in Black and Gold did something that I haven't really felt in a while. It got me excited for the next book. In long-form fantasy series, arguably the most critical part of the individual novel is the wrap-up. A well executed conclusion brings the events of the novel to a satisfying end and creates the anticipation for the next book in the line. Unlike the trilogy, which I've had much fun railing against in the past few reviews, the long-form series must treat every book as equally valuable if it wants to carry the reader through to the end. There is a level of momentum that can carry a reader through a bad book or a ill-conceived narrative line but the overall value of the series has to be solid.
Tchaikovsky's first novel feels like a freshmen effort, but the development of the world and its concepts is so solid that I'm compelled to continue. I may not care about Che or Totho, but I do want to see what happens to the Lowlands and what factions will drive the coming storm. For others who derive more value from the interactions of the individual characters and their internal growth, Empire will ring hollow and pointless, but if you have an eye for really good world-building, give Shadows of the Apt a try.
For more of Fofo's reviews, check out his blog, Librum Incurso.
This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.