You know how in the fantasy genre, the worlds are always populated by dwarves, elves, and wizards? Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Empire in Black and Gold” is most definitely NOT one of those books.
The first of 10 book series called “Shadows of the Apt”; the “Empire in Black and Gold” is set in a fantasy world populated by tribes of human-insect and human-arachnid creatures. Called “kinden”, each tribe of kinden has special powers and aptitudes that correspond to the insect or arachnid their tribe belongs to. For example, Fly-kinden can fly far and long while Ant-kindens has a mind-link to other Ant-kindens that belongs to their city.
Tchaikivsky start the tale with a bang with an empire of Wasp-kinden laying siege to the Ant-kinden city of Myna. The Beetle-kinden, Stenwold Maker was in Myna but failed in his attempt to stop the Wasp Empire. Returning home to his home city of Collegium, Stenwold reinvent himself as a spymaster to prepare his city for the inevitable war by the Empire.
Seventeen years later, the time has come for the Wasp Empire war of conquest and Stenwold knows that his city could not face the Empire alone. With his spies everywhere, he needed the help of the rest of the Lowlands cities.
Yes, I know. The premise sounds downright strange (even for the fantasy genre) and there’s a lot to wrap your head around. However, it is to the writer’s credit that he managed to build an incredible but strangely believable world out of this.
I read somewhere that Adrian Tchaikovsky was studying to be a zoologist before becoming a lawyer (how the hell did that happened?) and his interest in insects shows. He put in a lot of thought about the various kinden and how their insect powers would affect human-like creatures. Tchaikovsky also has the courage to develop each character slowly. Perhaps knowing how strange his world is, Tchaikovsky didn’t try to overload readers with information but instead slowly draw the readers into the world.
However, don’t mistake this book as slow and boring. The writer did a good job hinting at there is a lot more of the world to discover (including how there’s magic in the world) and there is a sense of urgency and danger once Stenwold’s agents were in the field. The story is well-paced and it had no problem keeping my interest.
Of course there are some problems. The start of the book is very confusing. At the siege of Myna, characters and powers are thrown at us without care. At the prologue, I read about Mantis-kinden, Ant-kinden, Wasp-kinden and went like, “What the hell?” Anyone who decides on whether to pick up a book based on the prologue (you know who you are) will be missing something good here. “Empire in Black and Gold” is one of those books that get better as you go along.
Also, for a refreshing world, I can’t help but be a little disappointed at how Tchaikovsky based the various countries of his world on real-life cultures. The Wasp Empire are Roman/Mongols, the Commonwealth are Persians/Arabs, Lowlanders are Renaissance Italians etc. It’s not a major problem and I understand why he did it but for insect-like humans to have cultures similar to what we have on Earth? I think Tchaikovsky missed an opportunity there.