Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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.

The kinden
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.

The Apt
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.

The story
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!

About Dan Ruffolo

Dan Ruffolo
Dan is a History and Philosophy graduate from Laurentian University. When he’s not reading an excessive amount of fantasy and sci-fi novels, or putting way too much time into online gaming and forums, he runs a Wine Shop in the north end of Toronto Ontario. A lifelong fantasy reader, and gamer nerd, Dan’s life ambition is to become a librarian.

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4 comments

  1. I thought the book was good for the first 100 or so pages and then really took off. Now I love a the series and am pissed off that the most recent couple of books are available in England and, for some reason, not in the US.

    As to the reviewers critique, I would posit that if you can enjoy books about dwarves, elves (and in some cases, “dark elves” and “light elves”), hobbits, goblins, orcs, trolls, etc. (you get my drift), then you can certainly enjoy books with different “aspects” of humans with distinct powers/personality types/predilections (perhaps even relish in the fresh characters and abilities instead of feeling stuck with the “same old” characteristics of the aforementioned species). Like Dan (the reviewer), it took me a while to get comfortable with this take, but once you consider this in comparison to traditional fantasy characters, it isn’t a great leap.

    The books have great plotting and story telling. The first four novels really contain one arc – so consider it that way (not much more than a trilogy) as opposed to an 8-novel and growing series.

    I can’t see how this is less than a 4-star book and series. I highly enjoy and recommend – especially for those who like to have “stuff happen” as opposed to a lot of travel or exposition without action.

    • I have no problem with different aspects of humans with distinct powers and personality types and predilections. I have a problem with hand-waved logic that has no internal consistency and simply makes no sense and is not explained remotely to my satisfaction in the book that is responsible for pulling me in.

      Current understanding of evolution and natural selection are perfectly able to explain dwarves and elves. I can get my head around them. When you live underground in caves, it is better to be short, squat, and strong in the upper body. When you live in trees and forests, it is better to be slim, light, and agile.

      Living next to a giant scorpion doesn’t make you get claws.

      • I think you are “delving too deep” on this. You are good with dwarves and elves (and I assume goblins and orcs and dragons, etc. etc.) because, somehow, the environment around them helps explain what they are. However, you are not okay with considering different aspects of sentient beings based on different insect aspects because, um, I’m not even sure how to finish this sentence. Did wasps/ants/bees/scorpions/spiders/drangonflys/flys/butterflies/moths/etc. develop in completely different environments? Your comment that “[c}urrent understanding of evolution and natural selection are perfectly able to explain dwarves and elves” is kind of humorous as you are, you know, talking about made up species. This is fantasy and a certain level of suspension of belief is required. I find a totally different take is actually quite refreshing.

      • By the way, I will agree that the books do not do a great job in explaining the reasons for these different species. It does not get deep into evolutionary biology. While a little more exposition on this would have been nice, I was personally not looking for a treatise on evolution and biology. The book would be better with a little more understanding of how different aspects of “species” developed. However, I would argue that we don’t need a lot more of it – because that’s not why people read fantasy. World building – yes. Deep biological reasoning and exposition – no. I don’t think there is “internal inconsistency” as much as a lack of detail.

        The book pulls you in by great characters and plot. If that is what someone is looking for, then this is a great read. Suspend belief! Enjoy a world of apt and inapt! Consider the aspects of moths, beetles, spiders, dragonflies, wasps, bees, and butterflies! Thrill in the ride of a fast-moving plot and interesting characters! Enjoy the unique flavor of the book instead or re-reading the same plot of young orphan boy discovering his gift for magic!

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