Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky Review

Empire in Black and Gold is the debut of British author Adrian Tchaikovsky and the first installment in a trilogy titled Shadows of the Apt. In his debut Tchaikovsky gives us a heroic narrative where a small group of travellers offer resistance against overwhelming odds – a narrative pattern typical of epic fantasy. Empire in Black and Gold is, however, a fantasy that is far from generic. Rather it offers a story of politics, war and ruthless imperial aggression set in a highly imaginative world inhabited by nations that model themselves in the style of their insect totems.

The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, 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, before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the Lowlands and burns away everything in its path.

But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.

Seventeen years ago Stenwold Maker witnessed the unrelenting aggression and overpowering military might of the Wasp Empire firsthand and he has since then dedicated his life warning the nations of the Lowlands about the threat that the Wasps pose to their continued peace and prosperity. No one, however, takes his warnings seriously and he has been reduced to an object of ridicule among his compatriots in the university city of Collegium. Thus no one but Stenwold is apprehensive when diplomatic representatives from the Wasp Empire make their first official appearance in Collegium. Desperate, Stenwold elicits the help of a small group of his students – his niece Cheerwell Maker, his ward Tynish, the apprentice artificer Totho and Salme Dien, Prince of the Dragonfly Commonweal. Together they are to travel to the industrial city of Helleron with the purpose of gathering intelligence of the Empire’s plans. However, events quickly escalate beyond their control as the four young people are separated and taken deep into occupied territory. Struggling to stay alive they find some unlikely allies, which might contain the first seeds of an organized resistance to the unrelenting forces of the Wasps.

As said, the narrative of Empire of Black and Gold adheres quite closely to a pattern common to epic fantasy but the novel is generic as Tchaikovsky has created a world that is strikingly original. Instead of the usual humans, elves and orcs, Tchaikovsky’s world is inhabited by a number of tribes or nations whose distinguishing traits have evolved from various forms of totemism – all focused on different insects. The people of this world are humanoid but have taken on various insect-like qualities through their meditative Ancestor Arts:

Meditation was the Ancestor Art, the founding basis of all the insect-kinden. Whether it was 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.

Most children started this at eight or ten and took to it without trouble. All over the world Beetle-kinden men and women, and all the other races of mankind, sat cross-legged as she was now and opened themselves up to their ideal. Primitive peoples might have gods, and the Bad Old Days had their totem spirits, but sensible Beetle thinkers had conjectured the Ideal Form. All ideas, they said, possessed a most perfect theoretical expression, and what she bent her mind towards was the Ideal Beetle. Her people, all of them, across the Lowlands and beyond, has imagined and explored and refined the Ideal, drawn strength from it, for thousands of years, since long before the first word of history was written.

Each of the different kinden thus has different capabilities and physical traits derived from their respective Anscestor Arts, derived from their original insect totems. Another interesting aspect of Tchaikovsky’s world – an aspect that differs from the generic pseudo-medieval fantasy – is his incorporation of a revolutionary period of Enlightenment and modernity in the history of his world, something that is expressed in the distinction between the Apt and Inapt insect-kinden. The Apt comprise, among others, the Beetle-, Ant- and Wasp-kinden and this term refers to the races that have an aptitude for advanced technology and machinery. The Inapt comprises races such as the Moth-, Spidren-, Mantis- and Dragonfly-kinden; races that once were the masters of the world.

This difference between the Apt and Inapt is further embedded within the deeper history of Tchaikovsky’s world. Five centuries prior to the present story, the Lowlands were ruled by the Moth Empire; a refined and elitist cultured steeped in spirituality, mysticism and magic. In this culture, the Inapt races formed the social elite while the Apt kinden served as slaves. A revolution among the Apt overthrew this order and ushered in an age, not only of peace and prosperity, but also of philosophical enlightenment and modern technology. The distinction between the Apt and Inapt thus also represent a paradigmatic change in their world; a change from a predominantly spiritual to a materialist world-view. This is, in my opinion, one of the more intriguing and original aspects of Tchaikovsky’s world-building as it is somewhat rare to find an epic fantasy that takes place in a world caught in the throes of an industrialized modernity. In this respect, Empire in Black and Gold straddles both steampunk and epic fantasy.

Another prominent theme deals with the concept of racism and the concomitant issues of oppression and empire. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Ancestor Art is a tendency to insularity and racial prejudice among the different insect-kinden. Fx Mantids and Spiders hate each other with a passion, so does Moths and Butterflies while Wasps feels superior to everyone. These tribal affiliations also functions as a kind of caste-system (Matids are generally warriors, Beetles artificers and merchants, etc.) and half-caste children are, in this context, victims of the rampant and unquestioned racism that seem to exist among all the different kinden. It is thus highly significant that the protagonists several times are brought into situations where they are forced to confront and examine their own racial prejudice. Totho is half-caste and therefore suffers directly from a racial stigma that even his exceptional technological aptitude cannot erase. Likewise, Cheerwell’s preconceived notions are put to the test when she forms a connection with Archaeos, a young man of the now reclusive Moths. Tynisha and Salme Dien go through similar experiences in their character-development.

When it comes to the Wasps, this deeply ingrained racism has become inextricably intertwined with their aggressive imperialism. The Wasps represent the very worst of Empire: aggressive militarism, racism as well as a ruthless acquisition of territory and an equally ruthless exploitation of the people they subjugate. They enforce their rule through brutality and fear (even amongst themselves) and the manner in which their aggression and brutality is combined with an arrogant sense of racial superiority brings to mind the horrors that Nazism and Fascism inflicted upon the 20th century.

Empire in Black and Gold is a very strong debut. It is a fast-paced and action-driven novel that nonetheless leaves plenty of room for character-development. Its primary strength is, however, the highly imaginative world that Tchaikovsky’s has created. The novel, however, has its flaws. I found that Tchaikovsky’s prose to be somewhat lacking in terms of the ability to generate the images necessary to make his world feel real and tangible. His prose is workman-like, perfectly adequate to the action-driven narration but decidedly lacking when it comes to descriptive imagery – I had to work very hard to image what his world would look like and this lack of texture is a bit of a shame because the basic concepts of his world are so intriguing. Flaws aside, Empire in Black and Gold is a remarkably strong fantasy debut and I for one am eagerly anticipating the sequels Dragonfly Falling and Blood of the Mantis.

– originally published 1/29/2009