Thursday, January 20, 2011
Review: Empire in Black and Gold
Empire in Black and Gold is a pretty damn refreshing book. Over the past couple of years I have become increasingly skeptical of starting in on any new fantasy series. More often than not, I read the opening novel in a fantasy series, and then don't read any more of the series. Usually for one of two reasons. It is either waaaaay too much of a time/page investment for something I am not totally fired up about, or the book doesn't offer anything new in the way of furthering the fantasy genre.
Yes, on the surface, Empire in Black and Gold treads the well worn path of peaceful-land-gets-invaded-by-evil-empire, but Tchaikovsky wraps all that up in what is in my mind a totally fantastic idea: Peoples with traits/powers akin to those of common insects. So instead of having different races and ethnicities, Tchaikovsky has humans that are ant kinden, wasp kinden, beetle kinden, mantis kinden and so on. Each kinden has unique skills and qualities that sets them apart from the other kinden. I'm totally in love with this concept, and it plays out very well as there is long held tension/hatred between certain kinden groups that plays into the story, not to mention the Wasp kinden who are trying to take over the world. I think the concept of differing kindens is the major strong point of the novel, and a quality that sets this new series apart from all the other epic fantasy series out there.
It takes more than just a good concept to hook me, and Empire in Black and Gold has some other strong suits as well. For one, I enjoyed the diverse cast of characters. Tchaikovsky's novel features interesting and compelling male and female characters that are, for the most part, fun to read about. For the most part the story follows characters that are on the "good" side, Stenwold, his niece Cheerwell, his ward Tynisia, the mantis weapons master Tisamon, a dragonfly Salma and a half-breed, Totho. However, the novel also features a character, Thalric, who provides the reader a point of view from the Wasp side of the struggle. I think the idea was to present a wasp character that would be somewhat sympathetic to the reader, thus adding a facet to the wasp people that doesn't portray them simply as the "evil empire". While I appreciate the attempt at creating a "shades of gray" character that is truly not evil nor good, the effort felt a bit contrived to me, and I thought the Thalric character fell flat and was more of a plot device than anything else.
Empire in Black and Gold scores high on another favorite fantasy staple of mine: sweet, sweet, glorious combat. Tchaikovsky shows great talent for writing a battle scene, whether it be single combat or larger engagements, the action scenes are great. The other great thing is that he doesn't skimp on them either. There is plenty of sword fighting and action in the novel, but it all serves a purpose and is never frivolous. I like feeling close to the action, and Tchaikovsky does a great job of bringing the reader in close to the action, making battle scenes a personal emotional affair rather than an abstract, panned out view of the action at large.
Empire in Black and Gold is a strong debut and a solid first novel in what looks to be a great epic fantasy series. There were times when the pacing slowed down and my interest waned, but I think there are enough positives in place to keep me going through the series in the future. I look forward to reading more from Tchaikovsky in the future.