The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication. They have been protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.
But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people – as soon a black-and-gold tide will sweep down over the Lowlands and burn away everything in its path.
But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.
– Official blurb for Empire in Black and Gold
Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, is a promising epic fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While Tchaikovsky uses the genre’s basic building blocks – a formidable danger, an oblivious civilisation, plucky heroes between the two, and cool set-pieces – he creates something new and fresh by dragging those old tropes into the industrial age.
Tchaikovsky’s prose, characterisation, and plotting are solid. None of these will win any awards, but they get the job done. I cared about the protagonists – the beautiful swordswoman and her plain sister, the nerdy engineer and the laughing dandy, the ageing mentor and the few surviving comrades of his generation. I was intrigued by their antagonist, a spy/secret policeman. I wanted to know what happened next, and when I powered ahead, the prose mostly stood out of my way. Tchaikovsky does have a jarring habit of head-hopping (switching from one point-of-view character to another within the same scene), but I grew used to this after a while. Otherwise, his writing carries the book through both fight scenes and quiet moments.
Where the book shines is in the power of the author’s imagination; with seemingly every page, right to the very end of the book, I would find something new to delight me. Two things exemplify this. First, the fusion of magic and technology. Smoke-bellowing, tank-like battering rams pound city gates into the dust; winged infantrymen drop down amidst hot-air balloons; ballista operators shoot it out with fireball-throwers. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that, even after breaking out of D&D pseudo-medieval settings, is still stuck largely in a pre-industrial age. Second, its assortment of fantasy races: not elves and dwarves, but humans who took on the aspect of totem insects. Winged, child-sized Flies are excellent couriers and scouts, Beetles are unglamorous but inventive, Spiders are attractive but devious, Ants share a telepathic link, and so on. This is the originality with which good speculative fiction is made.
Overall, Empire in Black and Gold isn’t the best fantasy book ever, but I had a lot of fun with its combination of (a) external conflict, (b) a weird and wonderful setting, and (c) decent execution. Recommended to genre fans, and I look forward to reading the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work.
You can buy Empire in Black and Gold from Amazon US here.