Sunday, September 7, 2008

Empire in Black and Gold, A review

Well, I finally finished my copy of Adrian Tchaikovsky's (a.k.a. Adrian Czajkowski - What are you trying to hide?! Or are you just betraying your Polish heritage to play up the possible name recognition/familiar pronunciation the alternate spelling provides? HMMMM???) new Fantasy novel Empire in Black and Gold. As has been said, I won a signed copy:

(See, he even put a little wasp...But why is there a bird there? I don't think there's a bid in the entire novel...).
So, now's the time. My Review!

Patented, solid-as-a-rock three word review: Shoulda been better.
More than three word review:
Empire in Black and Gold is an epic adventure fantasy set in a unique world, with compelling characters, an exciting premise and convoluted story. Set in a place called the lowlands, our protagonists must confront a massive empire that has slowly been swallowing all the scattered lands of humans. Finally, the Wasp Empire is at the doorstep of the Collegium, a city of learning and technology, and only one man and a few of his students recognize the threat for what it is.
There's my book blurb.

Empire in Black and Gold is a fantasy novel that, right off the bat, tells you it's out to avoid cliche like the plague. No fairies here, no dwarves or ogers or dragons. No, this land is a lod of humans...kind of. The humans of the nameless world (first point against. What's the place called?) are divided into "kinden", rather than races or species. The "kinden" are all named after insects--we've got Beetle-kinden, Ant-kinden, Mantis-Kinden, etc.

At first, this seems like some kind of arbitrary naming system; like maybe the Wasp Empire just adopted the wasp as its standard, perhaps. Not so. It turns out (eventually, muddily--point two against. I'm still not clear how the insect thing works.) that the humans of this world have somehow melded with the giant insects who also inhabit it (yes, giant insects, which barely figure into the plot at all--point three against! Use the bugs!) and taken on some of their characteristics. The Mantis-kinden have long, bony spikes sprouting form their arms, deadly grace and bloodlust. The Spider-kinden are graceful, can climb up walls, and are adept at manipulating people and political institutions (just like spiders. . .What?) and the Beetle-kinden are solid, have a lot of stamina and are cunning artificers (Again...what?) This is a central element to the story--the conflict between the kinden is as important as the conflict with the Empire. In fact, in many ways it is more important. No, wait. In this book, it is the ONLY conflict.

I have to be honest, I don't even know how to begin reviewing this book. It's a muddled mess of a story. Actually, there isn't a story to speak of. The characters are always moving, and there is some kind of development, but the plot isn't there. There's no arc, just a straight line that somehow turns into a circle. The characters are introduced, the Empire begins to menace, the characters are captured, there is a daring rescue, the characters move somewhere else, there is another threat, it's handled, the book ends and basically says: Buy the next book to see what happens! (Did I mention this is a series? "Book One of the Shadow of the Apt"--and I won't even get into the "Apt" thing yet.)

It's frustrating because there actually is a lot of interesting stuff here. The bug thing, like I mentioned, has tons of potential, but is left utterly out of the story. Why are there people like this? Why can some bug people fly but others can't? Why are there physical manifestations for some kinden, like the spines on the mantis kinden, but not others? Explore it! And show us more bugs--don't just say "There might be giant mantids in this forest, be careful!" and not show us a giant freaking mantis!

And the history. . .there is so much history hinted at. The book takes place in a post-industrial-revolution world, and this was a real revolution. The world was once ruled by the magic-using Moth-kinden, with the Spider-kinden and Mantis-kinden helping, but they were overthrown by the "Apt" races--the Ants, Beetles, and Flies--who can use machines. So now there's all kinds of hate between the In-Apt (Moth, etc) and Apt. The Beetles are the strongest at machinery; they have flying machines, huge mining operations, repeating crossbows (WHAT?!?) and they are of course in conflict with the nature loving Moths, Mantis and Spiders. That sounds like some good story stuff. . .why not devote more time to exploring the history?

Of course, I can answer that--there's going to be more books. Gotta save some plot for the rest of the series! The problem is, I have absolutely no desire to go and buy the rest of the books. I just didn't care enough about the story. I mean, I actually can't identify the main conflict of the first book. There was no denouement to speak of. The characters did develop, which is good, but...fantasy needs plot. It needs some kind progression to keep the reader coming back for more. When the progress towards a clear end stops, the reading stops (c.f. the last couple of WoT books). This book only succeeds in introducing the conflict for further books to explore; there is no real conflict for the book itself. In the end, absolutely nothing has changed between the beginning of the book and the end, except that two of the characters have sex, one of the characters discovers that another is the father she never knew, and one of them believes in magic. The world situation continues, and the books conflict turns out, in the end, to have been meaningless.

I think that's the bottom line. I won't get into the ridiculous science (sniping flying enemies from a flapping-wing flying machine...with a BOW?!?) the impossible technology (repeating crossbows?!) or the awkward sex-scene set up ("I have a mystical way of helping you discover your untapped potential...IN MY PANTS!") and just say--it takes more than a good, original idea and an agreement to write a sequel to make a good fantasy author, Mr or Mrs Editor.

p.s. After finishing this, I decided to search out some more info on Mr. Tchaikowski. It appears he's a cartoonist and RPG game designer....and the next book is coming out. Eeep. Well, if I win another contest, I'd be happy to review it...

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