Empire In Black and Gold
British fantasy writer Adrian Tchaikovsky has created a very deep world in Empire in Black and Gold, the first novel in his Shadows of the Apt series. Striding the line between high fantasy and steampunk sf, he carefully builds a society equal parts politics, emerging technology, and leftover ancestral magic. Drawing on classic fantasy themes – quest, growth, old ways versus new – and throwing in more modern themes of class and ethnic conflict, Tchaikovsky creates a complex web of character and action that pulls you relentlessly to the end.
Broadly, the story centers on Stenwold Maker, who as a younger man sees the threat of invasion by the barbarian empire to the East (and why is it always the barbarians in the East?) and commits himself to battling that invasion, both physically and politically. The bulk of the story occurs 17 years after a major city is lost to the empire, when Stenwold has become a teacher and spymaster, forced to send an ill-prepared group of his students on a dangerous mission. The dangers they encounter, and their commitment to each other are in themselves a thrilling adventure. But there’s a far more complex world here than a simple fantasy coming-of-age story. The depth of the world Tchaikovsky creates is stunning.
This is a world peopled by insectoid groups: Beetle-kinden – builders, artificers, and merchants; Ant-kinden – city-states of warriors; Spider-kinden – weavers of political webs; Mantis-kinden – prideful, honor-bound duellists and assassins; Dragonfly-kinden – an aristocratic society known as the Commonweal, who have been overrun by invaders; Fly-kinden – scavengers and servants; Moth-kinden – a nocturnal priesthood who cling to the old ways; Butterfly-kinden – delicate and beautiful, with the power to entrance; and Wasp-kinden – vicious barbarians recently united and seeking empire. All different, yet related enough to inter-breed, each group possesses ‘ancestor art’ – attributes of their insect past that can be tapped, like the ability to sprout wings and fly. Further divided into the ‘apt’ and ‘inapt’, the apt build and use technology while the inapt eschew technology for the older path of craft and magic. Moth and Mantis-kinden, both inapt, ruled the Lowlands until the apt Beetles and Ant-kinden revolted 500 years ago. Old antipathies run deep here, and cooperation between different kinden groups is often undermined by historical enmities.
Stenwold is beetle-kinden. An artificer academic, we first meet him as a determined, yet somewhat reluctant warrior at the siege of the city of Myna, attempting to coordinate the battle against the empire. When the city falls, due to apparent betrayal by one of his party, he and his mantid friend/lieutenant Tisamon are forced to flee for their lives.
When we next see Stenwold, it is 17 years later and he is still trying to rouse the powers-that-be in the Lowlands to the dangers of the Wasp empire, to not much effect. Older, fatter, and slower, he has become a senior artificer at the Great College at Collegium, but has also become a gatherer of intelligence – a spymaster – with a network of agents and informants scattered throughout the Lowlands. Ritual combat is a part of life in Beetle society and Stenwold has a team of students that are a dueling team – beetle-kinden Cheerwell Maker, known as ‘Che’, his niece; Totho, a half-breed beetle artificer, Salma, a Dragonfly-kinden prince, and Tynisa, a Spider-kinden girl who is also his adopted daughter. When it becomes obvious to Stenwold that the Wasps are about to begin in earnest their conquest of the Lowlands and that the Wasps, especially Thalric, wasp captain and sometime secret policeman, see him as a threat to their plans, he finds that he and his students are in jeopardy, and they must leave for the city of Helleron. From this point, they are all drawn deeper into danger and intrigue, and the group of unprepared and virtually untrained students is betrayed on arrival in Helleron, split up and forced to find shelter where they can. When Che rescues the moth-kinden raider-seer, Achaeos, a sworn enemy of beetle-kinden, he joins the company against his wishes, out of deeply-felt obligation. The reappearance of Tisamon, now an assassin selling his blade to the highest bidder in Helleron, triggers unforeseen events and forces Stenwold’s hand as they attempt rescue of captured comrades.
Tchaikovsky builds suspense well, and the journey of this group through separation, reunification, and separation once again is one that captured and held my interest. The reflections of class and ethnicity mirrored in the relationships between the various kinden are beautifully drawn and resonant. This is a well-imagined world, detailed and complete, with well-rounded, complex characters. Even the wasp captain, who it would be easy to make a cartoonishly evil character, is nuanced and subtle, conflicted between his devotion to the Empire, his desire for order, and his sense of compassion that struggles underneath those burdens. His strong reaction to the butterfly-kinden dancer, Grief in Chains, reflects those struggles, and I suspect that his evolution as a character will play as strong an element in the rest of this series as will the fate of Stenwold and his students.
This is, without a doubt, the first volume in a series and follows a number of the classic fantasy trilogy tropes. As inFellowship of the Ring, the band is split at the end of the book, set to follow independent paths towards a common goal. Alliances are broken and realigned. Hearts are broken and partially healed. Temptations are placed in the paths of virtuous and non-virtuous alike and the way is set with quicksand pits for the unwary. I’m looking forward to the second book in this series, Dragonfly Falling, due out next month from Pyr.
Empire in Black and Gold
by Adrian Tchaikovsky