Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book review: "Empire in Black and Gold" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished reading "Empire in Black and Gold", by Adrian Tchaikovsky, first book in "Shadows of the Apt" series. I haven't read book in so short time for a while. It wasn't a smooth read for the whole time, but in the end, I am very satisfied with this book and I am planning to buy sequels.

Description has to start with the setting, because this is the most original part of the book. Book is taking place in world where humans have characteristics of insects: physical, mental and so on; they call themselves Kinden. This doesn't mean that this is book with insects; they are still humans. For example, Ants are able to establish a physical link with their own race members; they are good warriors and are organized in ant-hill-like city-states. Spiders on the other hand are longer-living, matriarchal society, whose members are able to subjugate others to their will (but not always successfully). Fly-kinden are small, like to steal and are able to summon wings for some periods of time. And so on... Plus, with practice and concentration, one can learn to use abilities of other races, so called Kinden-skills.

Additional difference between races is Apt. Apt-races (especially Betlees, Ants and so on) are able to understand science and use mechanical or even more advanced devices. Inapt (Spiders, Moths) can't even understand it. For example, a Spider can use bow, but cannot understand the principle of crossbow, nor can use one. The apt races give this book something of steampunk flavor.

Book takes place some five hundred years after the Revolution, when Apt-races brought down the tyranny of older races (particularly Moths). Now, so called Lowlands, consisting of some dozen city-states are undergoing a renaissance, led by Betlee ingenuity. This led them to be conceit toward less-advanced races. So, when newly established Wasp Empire starts to grow in their neighborhood, they are fast to dismiss the threat. But Stenwold Maker, member of Collegium, has seen the Wasp's violent and expansionism nature first hand. Though nobody believes him, he will endure in his beliefs and establish a wide spy-network. With help of his young protégées (his niece Che, adopted daughter Tynisa, foreign nobility Salma and half-breed student Totho), he will try to thwart the plans of Major Tharlic, a high-ranking Wasp secret-operative.

About the bumpy read I mentioned in first paragraph, I am talking about first hundred of so pages. I had some trouble adjusting to the setting: I kept imaging all the characters as insects. It was somewhat opposite experience compared to "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge (great book, by the way), when reader is tricked into thinking about insectoid aliens as humans. Because of this I kept thinking about this book as some children novel. It was especially annoying because of authors constant forcing of insect names for races: Flies, Beetles, Spiders.... Sanderson did much better with "The Way of Kings", when reader fully realized how alien this world is only when long into book. Anyway, after this start, when action starts, I was already acclimatized and able to dig into plot.

Plot is good, although not something exactly to praise. It is about a group of young people chasing around for their missing friends, a being chased by hostile army. There is also some magic and mystery, and some spying and politics. Nothing especially innovative, but it brings much fun. In tone, it is similar to "Vorkosigan" saga.

Same can be said about characters. All good, but nothing exceptional. There is some seven main POVs: Stenwold, Che, Tynisa, Salma, Totho, Thalric and later Acheos; there is also few minor POVs. What is interesting is that we have views from several confronted parties. Thalric is a high-ranking member of Wasp society: he is intelligent and understands that Wasps and their empire have flaws, but he is nevertheless loyal and optimistic. Totho and Acheos are members of fundamentally different races (pragmatic realist vs. mystic)... When we are mentioning Tohto, I wished the author picked some different name for him; I can't seriously consider someone with that name.

For conclusion, I want to say that "Empire of Black and Gold" is a very good start of new fantasy series (new to me; there is some six books published) that I will read with pleasure. Not book to ponder about much, but book to enjoy and have fun with.

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