Monday, 28 July 2008

‘Empire in Black and Gold’ – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor UK)


One of the great things about going on holiday is being able to take along a book, which you really want to get into, safe in the knowledge that you won’t have to put it down to do boring stuff like work etc. I spent a large part of last week either getting chewed up by mosquitoes or finding out (the hard way) about some particularly boggy land on Dartmoor but I also spent a lot of time reading Adrian Tchaikovsky’s debut fantasy ‘Empire in Black and Gold’. It’s pretty damn good as far as I’m concerned…

The city states of the Lowlands have their occasional differences but, on the whole, generally get on together through a system of trade and various treaties. Sounds like a regular ‘off the shelf’ fantasy world? Maybe… but the thing that makes this particular world stand out from the rest is the fact that the human inhabitants are split into various races that each take their general demeanour (and a special power, the ‘Art’) from a ‘totem insect’. Beetles are an industrious people while Spiders spin complicated webs of politics and intrigue. It’s the Wasps that everyone needs to be watching out for however, a warlike people with a killing ‘Art’ and dreams of empire that are close to being recognised…
It seems that the only person who is aware of what is going on is one Stenwold Maker (a Beetle artificer) who fights to make the Lowlands aware of the Wasp threat whilst running a spy-ring that seeks to slow the Wasp advance. But while the Lowlands seem oblivious to what is happening, agents of the Wasp Empire are only too aware of Stenwold and have their own plans for him…

If I’d been reading ‘Empire in Black and Gold’ at work then I would have been deliberately missing trains and reading behind my monitor while the boss wasn’t looking, I thought it was that good. The first few pages show you just exactly what the Wasp Empire is capable of and although the action slows down from there the pace doesn’t let up for the rest of the book (well, almost the rest of the book… more on that in a bit). Tchaikovsky handles both the fights and the intrigue in the same manner, full of tension and surprises that kept me reading to find out what happened next. Tchaikovsky obviously has an interest in sword-fighting which lends particular scenes plausibility and emphasises just how awesome the fighting skills of Tisamon (the Mantis Kinden) actually are. He doesn’t overload us with that knowledge though which keeps the story fresh and moving along nicely.

It doesn’t always work though. The main issue I had with the book was that it felt like the resolution of two plot strands were slightly skewed in terms of how urgent they were. The prison break (just over halfway through) had plenty of build up to an explosive finale which I really enjoyed but was left wondering ‘what happens now?’ when that was done and there was still plenty of book to go. In contrast, the ‘main, Lowland threatening’ plot strand felt like it was wrapped up a little too quickly, Stenwold works out what the Wasps have planned and thwarts them (just like that). I’d have liked a little more build up here as this was the whole point of the book, can’t really complain too much though as ‘Empire’ redeems itself in many other ways.
Once you get past the potential obstacle of taking ‘Beetle’, ‘Wasp’, ‘Moth’ etc to mean insects, rather than ‘race names’, (I kept getting trapped by this) then ‘Empire in Black and Gold’ is a great example of the perfect marriage between intricate world building and engaging characters, neither takes precedence and what I was left with was a read where I got to learn about the world of the Lowlands through the journey that the characters made.
You get some history but not loads and it only really serves to flesh out the characters or certain situations, for example you don’t really find out much about the Moth Kinden until one of them becomes a part of the plot. I also liked the way that history is hinted at but not expanded upon which gives a greater sense of depth to the world. The Lowlands are in a transitory period between the age of magic and that of science and, given certain events in the book, it will be interesting to see if that transition keeps going in the same direction.

I’ve already said that the characters are all engaging although you may get the feeling that you’ve seen them before in other books. Having said that though, the underlying insect cultures do add freshness to the proceedings which I appreciated. They’ve all got plenty of baggage but also have endearing features that made me want to find out more about them and invest the time needed to see where their journey would end. None of them are in for an easy ride and I’m already impatient to see where events take them next.

Although by no means perfect, ‘Empire in Black and Gold’ has enough going for it to make it one of the most enjoyable books that I’ve read so far this year. I want more and there’s nothing I can do but sit it out and wait…

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

4 comments:

Michael Natale said...

This has been getting great reviews all over the place. Can't wait to read it. Thanks for reviewing it.

Michael

ThRiNiDiR said...

I've had two opportunities now to buy Tchaikovsky's debut, but I made the mistake to judge the book by its covers - it looks rather bland and generic; I should have known better and look closer and now I've spent my money on other things - The Separation by Christoper Priest is one of them (the money didn't go to waste after all :)). Great review Graeme.

Cara said...

Ooo, great review, I'll definitely be checking out this one^^ thanks!

Graeme Flory said...

Thrin - If that third opportunity comes along then don't waste it! I actually don't mind the cover myself, it's not brilliant but I've seen far worse ;o)