Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Empire in Black and Gold

by Adrian Tchaikovsky


On at least one level the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series is dramatically different from most contemporary fantasy. Everyone in Empire in Black and Gold is a bug.

That's not to say that this is a story of anthropomorphic insects. The people in this world are all human, in a sense, although some appear to be more human than others. But each of them belongs to a particular insect race which dictates their character, appearance, and special abilities. So Spider-kinden are subtle and devious, Beetles are large and have good stamina, whilst the small Ant-kinden have telepathic powers that allow them to work as a team.

These racial characteristics divide people, and those who are unlucky enough to be a hybrid between two races are generally looked down upon. But perhaps an even larger division is between the Apt and Inapt races. This is a world in which some races live as they have done for thousands of years, without the benefit of progress. However the Apt build flying machines, railroads, and all the other devices of a steam-powered industrial world. The Apt understand technology, whereas the Inapt races have some kind of mental block when it comes to technology.

The story begins with Stenwold Maker, a Beetle, and his friends Marius and Tisamon. They wait to defend the city of Myna against the advancing Wasp army. The Wasp empire is growing, laying waste to all who stand in its way and enslaving anyone else who remains within their conquered lands.

Seventeen years later, Stenwold is living in the Lowlands and trying to persuade his complacent people that war is coming. He's having little success. But he has managed to tutor four young people and recruit them to his cause. They leave the cultured city of Collegium to act as his agents against the Wasp threat, just as the Empire's attention is turning towards the Lowlands.

To begin with Empire in Black and Gold seems like a fairly traditional fantasy adventure, underneath its insect-themed quirkiness. To an extent that's exactly what it is. It certainly has all you might require of a ripping yarn. There's fast-paced adventure, pursuit, and the coming-of-age of a disparate group of likeable young characters. Captain Thalric, the Wasp who seems to shadow their every move, appears at first to be a little to hard-hearted, and too unswervingly loyal to the Empire. But as the story unfolds his allegiances are tested and we discover that there's a lot more to him than simple villainy.

Adrian Tchiakovsky is adept at springing surprises on us, and this novel gets more complex as it progresses. Politics, love, loyalty and betrayal converge in some delightful twists. However it's more than just the surprises that make this a fabulous read. The sheer elaborate escapism hits you from all sides: there's the tension of a building war, the budding romances between various characters, and the sense of wonder at this captivating world with all its oddities and arthropod-like people.

Book Details

Year: 2008

Categories: Books


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5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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