Friday, October 03, 2008

Empire in Black and Gold - book review

Another book review. This time I've provided a much smaller picture of the cover than I did for my review of Brasyl. The reason is simple - the cover is terrible. Cheap and lazy looking. This is a real shame because it actually masks one of the better fantasy debuts in recent memory. Empire in Black and Gold is written by new boy to the scene, Adrian Tchaikovsky.

The book begins with one of the principal characters, Stenwold Maker, witnessing the fall of a Lowland city to the soldiers of the Wasp Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades and Stenwold is trying to warn the complacent movers and shakers in the Lowlands. The book follows Stenwold and his allies attempts to thwart the Empire. That's pretty much it. So far so predictable.

Why should I bother with this book you might be thinking. Well this description only tells a part of the picture - I mentioned the Wasp Empire. This isn't purely descriptive, the Empire consists of humans with wasp like characteristics. The world of Empire in Black and Gold is split into racial groups along insect based lines. These groups are Kinden and we have beetles, dragonfly, spiders, moths, ants and so on. Each of these has distinct physical characteristics related to their insect designation and also distinct cultural traits. This idea is ripe with opportunities for exploring serious issues like racism but it is also simply enjoyably imaginative and open to a wide range of possibilities. It's a genuinely interesting addition to the world of fantasy literature.

In addition to this we aren't dealing with the bog-standard quasi mediaeval secondary world. 500 years ago, the Lowlands were ruled by the Moths, a mystical kinden with control of magic and a tyranical domination of the other races. They were eventually overthrown by the rationalist species, in particular the Beetles. This led to the demise of magic from general usage to the point where few believe in it beyond the Moths and their client Kinden. The Beetles are skilled craftspeople and they eventually propelled the world towards a sort of proto-industrial revolution. The book is therefore filled with early flying machines, the development of trains and steam power. Certain elements of traditional fantasy world; we are still talking about swords and taverns and whatnot. However, the transitional nature of the world is interesting and fun to explore.

The book isn't perfect. The prose is a bit clumsy in places, particularly early on, and not all the characters are massively interesting. Although I have praised the worldbuilding, for me it is actually a bit light in places - hopefully the background of the Kinden and the history of the world will be explored in greater depth in future books (it's a trilogy). There is certainly scope for this. Despite these minor issues, this is a very creditable debut and comes highly recommended.

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