Empire in Black and Gold is the first book of the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Czajkowski (he has it spelled Tchaikovsky on his books to make his name easier to pronounce for his American and English readers). It is currently eight books long, with the promise of ten books in all.
In Tchaikovsky’s world, instead of races or nationalities, we see a people somehow descended from/connected to/inspired by insects. These people are known as kinden; we’ve seen Beetle, Fly, Scorpion, Spider, Wasp, Dragonfly, Butterfly, and a few other kinden at this stage.
This mechanism hasn’t been particularly well explained at this starting point of the series, but it seems to generally suggest that regular humans coexisted with giant insects with a relationship that resembles what would probably have been the case had we coexisted with dinosaurs: mostly we’d be lunch. And then, somehow, humans started to live more closely with these insects and then began to take on their characteristics, which seem to be passed on genetically to offspring. It’s certainly an interesting concept, but it runs into a few obvious issues.
Firstly, this process is basically unexplained. Living with giant dragonflies long enough makes it so you can fly? Living with giant scorpions long enough gives you claws? While this is a created world, so the logic needs only be internally consistant, it really did seem strange to me how this would work. There are also no kinden-less humans yet; and crossbreeding is perfectly possible and seems to combine (if dilute) the powers of the parent kinden, which you’d think would have pretty much homogenized the genetic base by now, no matter how insular each type of kinden was. Furthermore, the characteristics gained from their Ancestor Art (the mechinism by which they manifest their powers) seem very arbitrary and, in some cases, confusing. The Spiders are all charismatic, have some kind of mind control, and, I guess, climb well. No venom, no webs, no compound eyes, no multiple limbs. The Beetle-Kinden have a tendency to be overweight, resistant to poisons, and generally stubborn and resilient, but apparantly also industrious. Now, I’m not really an expert on the subject, but although some beetles are quite large, I’m not sure how that ties to being fat.
While it is a novel concept, it felt very handwaved throughout, as though we were just supposed to roll with it.
In the past (which they call the Bad Old Days, an amusing reversal if nothing else) certain kinden were the masters of the others; the Moth-Kinden basically ran a coalition of some of the other, fancier kinden (Butterfly, Mantis, Dragonfly) and had many of the other more “base” kinden (Beetle and Ant, primarily) as slaves. Legends tell of magic existing, very little technology, and it was a pretty typical-sounding medieval world. Then the Beetles and Ants developed technology, using it to overthrow their masters and gain independence (we’re talking the level of, say… a crossbow).
This creates a distinction between the Apt, those who use technology, and the Inapt, those who don’t—which is fair enough on the surface. But the consequences of this distinction are truly absurd. It’s stated, essentially, that the Inapt kinden simply cannot comprehend technology—can’t use it, can’t deal with it. There’s a scene in the book that actually claims that an Inapt character was totally unable to wrap their head around the concept of using a crossbow. The connection between “I press the trigger,” and “the thing goes,” is apparantly beyond a perfectly intelligent and cultured people who are already using bows (I pull the string back and the thing goes). This one extra removal is too much for their brain to deal with.
Just as above, I have no idea yet whether this is explained more or better in later books, but considering that the debut is what convinces people to read the later books, it’s pretty relevent that this is a concern.
In spite of my objections above (I seem to use that phrase in almost every review) I did still enjoy this book. The characters are well written within the contraints of “All X-Kinden behave like X” and the storyline is compelling. The loose confederacy of peoples with an uneasy peace, threatened with destruction from beyond their borders but too blind to see it until it’s too late, makes for great storytelling, suspense and interest in what will happen. Tchaikovsky’s writing is excellent even if I have some issues with the world-building. I was engaged throughout and connected to several of the characters. He also has an excellent villain, one of the best kinds: The Loyal Man, who puts his service above his own morals and then has to wrestle with himself over what he does.
All in all, I’m planning to pick up the second book and see where it goes from there before I commit to reading or buying the full ten, but based on this volume, the series deserves another chance.
Why you should read this book
Empire of Black and Gold is a novel about struggling to protect your people from a threat they refuse to acknowledge. To carry on and never give up despite being dismissed, ignored, trivialized. It’s about overcoming odds to achieve any progress you can toward your goals. The characters are interesting and engaging; the storytelling is well paced and captures the interest. Enough things are explained to pull you into the world, and enough are left open to keep you wondering, even though I disagree with some choices for which are which.
If you enjoy unique world/people building, or stories where the heroes are a little less heroic than they could be but still plug away regardless, then this is the book for you!