Monday, 2 September 2013

Review: Empire in Black and Gold

The first book of the Shadows of the Apt series, Empire of Black and Gold, is a thick brick of fiction. In many respects that's to be expected, it is a fantasy novel and in particular it's of that stripe of fantasy that's grown fatter over the past few decades. It has a relatively detailed map as you might expect if you're familiar with this sort of fiction, though the list of characters and places only appears at the start of book 2, Dragonfly Falling. I'm quite glad to see the list, because if I'm honest I did find that at times in Empire, I had trouble remembering who the various characters were, the book's so busy.

As I mentioned in my review of Tchaikovsky's book of short stories, Feast and Famine, I've owned Empire of Black and Gold for a long time and it's only in the last couple of weeks that I've started reading it. Approaching it I was cautious, I'd enjoyed his voice in the short stories but I was less sure about a 611 page novel. As it happens I found it interesting from the get go, Tchaikovsky's world is interesting and nuanced and the presence of the insect kinden makes for a far more interesting world than one stocked with traditional fantasy races. As a reader I knew that everyone was human... but not human at the same time and it was fascinating to see how the insect and human natures balanced each other and what each kinden could do.

There are some very interesting distinctions at play within the world, beyond the various kinden you have the idea of the Apt and Inapt, which rules which of the kinden can use technology and magic respectively. This is something that's coded into the character's genetics - an Apt character can't use magic beyond the their 'ancestor art'; tricks that cleave to the things the insect their kinden draws its lineage from can do. In contrast the Inapt cannot understand technology at all but can understand sorcery (though as of the first book only two kinden have expressed a huge talent for it). All in all this creates a modern division between the world of machinery and mass production and the longing for a simpler world where traditional artisanship creates things of beauty but are out of step with the world (oddly parallelling the steampunk community's concerns). This seems to one of the core elements of the books, as great in its distinction as the one between the Wasps and the other kinden.

The novel's introduction to the Lowlands is gentle. I feel you can see the setting's roots as a roleplaying game here and in the opening of the main plot (as opposed to the fall of Myna). The basic premise of the series, that the Wasp Empire is spreading, conquering all in their path and have just broken off a 12 year war with the Dragonfly Commonweal. Their eyes turn south towards the Lowlands and our introductory character Stenwold Maker is alone in realising the threat. Where he sees danger, the other Beetle kinden see opportunity, misunderstanding the Empire's ways. They believe they can trade with the Wasps safely, that there is a limit to their ambitions. Quite apart from the echoes of World War 2 this throws up, the world also feels very much analogous with Ancient Greece and Persia, where the Lowlands are a series of small city states, many of them ruled by Ant kinden who like nothing more to war upon each other and Beetles who's main interest in profit (again this feels like Ancient Greece).

In contrast the Wasps organisation and ruthlessness calls back to the perceived nature of the Persian or Roman Empire, or perhaps to Fantasy's roots as Sword and Sorcery.  In many ways there's an odd timelessness to the series; mixing the ancient world with steampunk technology and some aspects of Medieval life. All in all though it feels very different to the standard fantasy world though, even if the history is as rich and long as any other settings'.

To me, the novel's opening felt a little like a roleplaying plot. As I read I felt there were moments where I could identify the practice combat, to make sure that the players know what they're doing in a fight. The escape and action on the Sky Without, an airship out of Collegium, has the sensation of a first plot arc in a game; there's even an old spymaster to set the characters on their path and to give them a sense of the broader picture. Of course it works as a first arc in the novel too, but there seemed to be something quite roleplaying game based about the characters actions and the way things pan out. I'm not sure if that reflects Tchaikovsky's background as a gamer himself or it's just happy coincidence.

It's when the characters reach Helleron that the action really starts, with a brave decision to split the party early on through an elegant device; a face changing assassin who pretends to be the characters' contact. Plots spin off this action gracefully, allowing the reader to get a strong sense of the city and its inhabitants as they encounter pretty much all the classes of people there, from grasping factory owners only too happy to sacrifice their pride in return for business, the people of the slums and, lastly, the criminal gangs that make up the city's various 'fiefs'. As a reader this allows us to get a strong sense of Helleron's nature and to appreciate more of the ways the insect kinden are expressed. In particular it allows for the introduction of the Moth Achaeos and some of the setting's history (namely the Revolution of the Apt, where the Moths were defeated by Beetles and Ant kinden and forced back to the mountains).

From there things get worse, but to the author's credit he doesn't use this as an excuse to the tip the novel into a pit and keeps things on an even keel. He takes the opportunity to develop the Wasps, in particular Captain Thalric, who's been assigned with hunting down and destroying Stenwold Maker and his agents. That he takes the time to flesh out the enemy makes the story more interesting, that in some ways Thalric's motives are admirable makes it more so. This is no cackling mad man intent on conquest for the sake of it; I almost got the sense that the Wasps initially stumbled into Empire, even though they clearly believe in the superiority of their kinden and their intent has changed to underline their belief that they should be in charge (it would be nice to see where this belief comes from).

Character work is nicely handled, the protagonists are given pleasing depth early on and the expanding cast is nicely juggled, displaying a good amount of thought that's gone into their development. It's good to see that things aren't left of fester too long, issues are dealt with as quickly as they can be and Tchaikovsky takes the developments and runs with them, using them as fuel for the burgeoning relationships that pepper the books. Whilst the romances in the Wheel of Time were long dragged out chains that took forever to get anywhere, in Empire in Black and Gold we see swift development, by the end of the book we have a new status quo to deal with at both macro and micro levels and see characters make sacrifices that I suspect will only lead to the worst.
The story manages to avoid cliche for the most part, though it strays close when some of the characters are forced to enter Drakyon Forest, another point where the story reaches back to the revolution. Whilst there's a strong justification for it and its well handled; even going onto be another building block for the future of the series,  there's something just so archetypical about the haunted forest as an idea that it seems a little near the 'Big Guide to Fantasyland' that it sticks out a little. The only other things that seem cliched concern Thalric and the secret organisation he's involved in, the Rekef. This feels like its straight out of a spy novel or TV show, possibly no bad thing but at the same time the organisation feels, well as if its been used thousands of times before (I appreciate there are very few ways to describe an espionage ring that aren't verging on cliche, its just that here, in the heady stew of elements that Tchaikovsky's cooking with they stand out as in someway uninspiring). Then too there's the character of Ulther, Thalric's former mentor who's now the stereotypical aging governor, who's more interested in his harem of body slaves and what he can reap from his position than in being a good citizen. Whilst the incident is necessary to deepen our understanding of Thalric and to knock some of the 'tough soldier doing what he can for his people' off his shoulders, the character of Ulther is scarcely developed enough to give him a strong standing in the book. In the end it doesn't matter, he's a bump in the road after all.

Empire in Black and Gold has been the first epic fantasy I've read in about a decade, long exposure to this kind of book eventually killed my love for them. It's fair to say that Shadows of the Apt has changed that. The series feels fresh and innovative, whilst it's hard to conceive of any sort of fantasy that's completely free of Tolkien's Shadow, the series feels like it draws on older works. It's well written and a well designed world, Tchaikovsky certainly doesn't lack craft on either the writing or world building fronts, and  the series has potential from the very start. With well written characters and a good sense of pacing this is a strong piece of fiction without tipping into 'grimdark' territory or commiting the sins of previous fantasy series. If you're looking for a series that feels different but is definitely in the epic fantasy camp, then my gut feeling is that this is for you.