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Friday, July 4, 2008

“Empire in Black and Gold” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Read An Extract HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Adrian Tchaikovsky was born in Lincolnshire and studied zoology and psychology at Reading, before practicing law in Leeds. “Empire in Black & Gold” is his first novel.

PLOT SUMMARY: The city-states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, protected by their trade, technological advances, and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbors. But in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its killing Art, and its hunger for conquest.

Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, a spymaster, artificer and statesmen, can clearly see that the long days of peace are almost over. For seventeen years ago, Stenwold personally witnessed the terrible might of the Wasp Empire when they brutally conquered the city of Myna. Since then he has preached vainly against this threat in his home city of Collegium, all the while training youthful agents to aid him in his fight against the Wasp.

Now the Empire is on the march and its up to Stenwold and his latest recruits—his niece Che, his mysterious ward Tynisa, Prince Salma of the Dragonfly Commonweal, and apprentice artificer Totho—to open the eyes of their people before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the Lowlands and burns away everything in its path…

CLASSIFICATION: For its writing style and accessibility, “Empire in Black and Gold” reminded me of
Brandon Sanderson. For its nonstop action, pulse-pounding swordplay and heroism, I kept thinking of Greg Keyes and David Gemmell. Because of its engineering elements I thought of K.J. Parker’s The Engineer Trilogy, while the war elements brought to mind Steven Erikson and the intrigue/espionage evoked Jacqueline Carey. And because of the setting, which married together advanced technology, steampunk and medievalism, I kept imagining Final Fantasy. Plus, I was reminded of Stephen Hunt's Jackelian novels for various reasons. Yet, “Empire in Black and Gold” is not like any of the aforementioned. In fact, it’s really like no other epic fantasy novel that I’ve ever read before and I had a hard time coming up with an accurate description or ideal comparisons. Suffice to say that “Empire in Black and Gold” is a mix of many different concepts—intrigue, war, slavery, racism, technology versus magic, history, ‘insect totems’—and is tailored to readers who want their epic fantasy to be familiar, yet refreshingly different, while remaing both epic and fantastic…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 624 pages divided over forty chapters and includes a hand-drawn map of the Lowlands and surrounding environs. Narration is in the third-person via several different POVs including Stenwold Maker, his niece Che, his ward Tynisa, Prince Salma of the Dragonfly Commonweal, apprentice artificer Totho, Captain Thalric of the Wasp, the Moth Achaeos, and various other minor narratives. “Empire in Black and Gold” is the opening volume in the Shadows of the Apt series, and as a result, the story is not self-contained, but the book does come to a bearable stopping point. Plus, the subsequent novels—at least two more—will be published every six months with volume two, “Dragonfly Falling”, scheduled for release February 2009, followed by "Blood of the Mantis".

July 4, 2008 marks the UK Paperback publication of “Empire in Black and Gold” via Tor UK. Translation rights have been sold to Germany and Poland. No US deal yet, but I hope the series finds a North American home, and soon, else a lot of readers will be missing out. Cover art is provided by Dominic Harman.

ANALYSIS: If all I had to go by was the cover art, 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. Adrian 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.

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 from most other fantasy series 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. Adrian 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, et cetera. Even better, Tchaikovsky has 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 is 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 & Gold" is quite a departure from dark lords, prophecy and the chosen one, and keeps the 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 Adrian’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 about and much to admire.

CONCLUSION: 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’sThunderer”. This year, could it be Adrian Tchaikovsky’sEmpire 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 & Gold” offers, and sincerely believe that Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt is a fantasy series to watch…


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review Robert.

The book sounds really cool. The race concept sounds pretty neat.

Chapters (in Toronto)online says that it's hitting the stores on August 1, in trade pb format. But it also says it's only 250 pages or something. Whenever there is incorrect info I am weary. We'll see. Either way i'm gonna seek this one out forsure based on your recommendation.

P.S. Did you ever review DEVIL'S CAPE? I think you did but I can't remember. I finished it recently and was BLOWN AWAY. It was easily my favorite book in some time.

Take care, bud!
Tell the fam reanimated said hello!

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Glad you like this -- noticed this on the Tor UK website last night, and I fancied it looked quite good!

Mark said...

Great review! Happy 4th Robert :) I hope you get to enjoy some good food, family, and a lot of violently bright lights!

Anonymous said...

I'm uming and ahing on this one.

I'm just not sure it's me. I'm loving the cover though.

Robert said...

Reanimated, I'm glad you're going to check out the book :) I definitely think it's worth it. Btw, it's waaay longer than 250 pages ;) As far as Devil's Cape, I was planning on reviewing the novel, but never got around to it. Hopefully I'll get back around to it...

Chris, yeah I saw the nice spot it has on the Tor UK website. Hopefully it will attract some readers :)

Thanks WJ! Nada on the first two, but we got to see a nice light show :D

The cover just fails to do anything for me. Unfortunately, the cover for the next book is even worse. The problem is that Dominic Harman is pretty talented, and I don't think these covers do the artist, or the book, justice...

Anonymous said...

Loved it and can't wait until the next book comes out.
From Midge

Robert said...

I'm glad you loved the book Midge! At least we won't have to wait too long for the next one :)


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