Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Book review

empireEMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD by Adrian Tchaikovsky,

Tor, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Richard Webb

Having heard Adrian Tchaikovsky speak at BFS Con ’12 my curiosity was piqued enough to purchase one of his books; I started with the first in his epic series, though he was already promoting the seventh by that point. For epic fantasy readers looking for something a little different to Ye Olde Englande settings of many series, this world features two key differentiations in particular:

— the existence of ‘kinden’, races related in some unexplained way to various types of insect;

— the contrasting forms of inherent magic/lore referred to as ‘Art’ and more prosaic, mechanical expertise which border on a type of magic, known as ‘Apt’.

Trust me, the former is subtly and richly related and is the chief characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s world and it is vital to buy into it early. These are humans. Not human as we know it exactly, but human nonetheless albeit with insect traits. For example: ‘Wasp-kinden’ (the Empire forgers of the series title) are organized and militaristic, and can ‘sting’ their enemies by generating arcane fire; ‘Ant-kinden’ have a hive mentality and communicate with each other by thought; ‘Beetle-kinden’ are prosaic and industrious; ‘Dragonfly-kinden’ are agile duelers; ‘Mantis-kinden’ have bladed forearms and a powerful bloodlust; ‘Spider-kinden’ have a crafty intellect, ‘Butterfly-kinden’ are beguilingly beautiful…

For the most part it gives the world a unique feel, though figures tend towards the archetypal rather than individual at times, kinden characteristics outweighing personal traits; a minor quibble though — the lead characters’ flaws and relationships drive the plotlines and give the story engagement and depth. Couple this with a steampunk-flavoured setting of steam/clockwork technology, ornithopters and airships resulting from an industrial revolution overtaking a near-medieval world, and you are in new and interesting territory.

The story focuses on Stenwold Maker and his students who believe that an invasion of their homeland by the Wasp Empire is imminent. They scheme to undermine the enemy whilst trying to overcome the ignorance that their fellow countrymen have towards this threat. Stenwold is an atypical fantasy male lead character: mature, unfit, vulnerable and self-doubting but driven by ideals of freedom and learning. He makes flawed decisions, striving to do right but in so doing putting those he loves in harm’s way; I have faith he is a character whose struggle is worth following through a long epic series.

Nobody in the book is truly good or bad; even Thalric, a fervent agent of the Empire and nemesis of the protagonists, mistrusts some of his orders and shows admirable qualities. Despite his adherence to Empire laws he fights a constant battle between duty and conscience. Several other characters stand out, such as Cheerwell, though her coming-of-age arc was predictable; nevertheless she had other stand-out moments to balance out this shortcoming.

Much of the character development involved the discovery and usage of their kinden powers, setting the scene for the classic fantasy trope of Magic versus Science. Each is almost a religion in terms of how they inform belief systems. The nature/nurture of these abilities is suggested (meditation harnessing instinct, action/emotion unlocking abilities) but is never related in detail. Good – no need to have magic all ‘spelled out’.  The notion of individual versus collective responsibility resonates throughout whilst other themes are explored as well, such as innovation versus tradition, art versus industry, all of which are played out in the frictions between characters, cultures and beliefs, giving the book a well-roundedness and avoiding the ‘black-and-white’ morality of much heroic fantasy.

The book has a solid style, but is sometimes wordy at the expense of pace, but this is a problem endemic of first books in long series — there is a world to build, plots to seed and characters to introduce. Knowing that the series is ten books this is forgivable: the investment is necessary and started to pay off as plots gathered momentum, though the story lurched from set-piece to set-piece a little at times, giving it an episodic feel. The characters and setting drew me in and kept my attention and the curiosity I had at the beginning remains intact: whilst I am coming to the series late this looks like an epic saga to pursue. It’s a Kinden Magic!