Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review: Empire in Black and Gold

Fifteen years ago Stenwold Maker witnessed the fall of Myna at the hands of the Wasp Empire.  He returned to his home in the Lowlands to warn of an impending invasion from this new, and dangerous threat to their peaceful and thriving existence.  His initial warnings fell on deaf ears, and as the years passed and the Wasps focused their energies on other conquests, Stenwold's continued warnings started to sound more like the ravings of a paranoid madman.  Not willing to stand by and do nothing to protect his homeland, Stenwold created a vast network of spies to help him stay on top of the Empire's comings and goings.  Now with the territories north of the Lowlands partially in the Empire's grasp, they appear to be turning their attention at last to the Lowlands, a land of city states too concerned with their bustling commerce to pay attention to the dangers they face.  The Empire is a canny bunch, and they are onto Stenwold and his schemes, so he and his newly anointed batch of spies must do whatever they can to survive in the rapidly changing world and find a way to protect their land, and their way of life.

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.

Grade: B


Melissa (My words and pages) said...

So glad to see you enjoyed this one. I have it on the shelf here to get to and need to get there one of these days. But the whole idea here caught my attention, and that was enough for me to pick up. Sounds like it is a good solid read. Thanks!

Ryan said...

Hey Melissa,

Yeah, I don't think you'll be disappointed. This is a solid fantasy read, with some fresh takes on common genre conventions. I look forward to seeing what is in store for the rest of the series.