Ray Gun Reviews
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Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pyr, 2010, 415 pp

From a very young age, the refrain of Ecclesiastes — “there is nothing new under the sun” — has been a defining refrain for me. And, unfortunately, much of modern fantasy tends to bear this out. However, every now and then, something fresh and original comes along; Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Shadows of the Apt” series seems to be just that, giving us a fairly original world-building.

Too often in fantasy epics, the races we encounter are simply rip-offs of the races that Tolkien gave us in Lord of the Rings, and whereas Tolkien’s races were very fleshed out and had depth, too often what we get are “elves are haughty and aloof”, “dwarfs are more down to earth”, etc. Tchaikovsky, however, takes such racial stereotyping to a whole new level, refreshing it by (oddly enough) taking it to an extreme. In Tchaikovsky’s unnamed fantasy world, all people are identified with various insects, bearing some resemblance to their race’s namesake. Thus, the Wasps are warriors who attack viciously; the Beetles are short, squat, industrious inventors who are not too good at battle; Spiders are elegant and mysterious; and so on. A fascinating idea, but can it hold a whole series together?

Of course, it takes than just a good idea to make an epic succeed. I’ve read far too many fantasy epics that start with an interesting conceit, but don’t have the story or the characters to back it up. I think, though, that “Shadows of the Apt” may just have both.

Empire in Black and Gold starts with an inter-racial band of freedom fighters putting up the last defense of Myna, one of the cities of the Lowlands, from the advancing Wasp army. Their defense is quickly over-run and they must flee. The band is broken up, apparently betrayed by one of their own.

Fast forward nearly two decades and Stenwold Maker, the Beetle of the group is now a professor in Collegium, where he has spent the intervening time futilely warning everyone he could about the dangers inherent in the approaching Wasp Empire. But no one has listened. Clandestinely, however, he has been overseeing a spy network to establish another freedom-fighting force to prevent the Empire of Black and Gold from taking over the Lowlands.

Under the guise of a diplomatic envoy, the Wasps arrive in Collegium and force Stenwold’s hand sooner than he had expected. In order to keep his network alive, Sten must send them fleeing before he has fully prepared them for the battle they will soon face.

From there, the story proceeds as one would generally expect, but the inventiveness of the insect-kinden as well as a vigorous pacing keep the book feeling fresh and original. It’s too soon to tell whether the series will be able to keep it up, but this is an excellent beginning.

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