The Art was common to all the kinden, yet unique to each. It grew the spines on Mantis arms and gave them their prodigious speed and skill. It was the silent voice with which Ant-kinden spoke to each other, mind to mind, to co-ordinate their battles. It made some strong, others resilient. It could cloud enemy minds, or climb enemy walls. It could make the earth-bound fly... Oh, she would so like to fly.
A shorter post than usual, tonight, because the following is a review I had published in last month's SFX. (Tsk, magazines and their wordcounts...!) Since that issue is now off the stands, I can finally put the piece up here. Empire in Black and Gold is the first book in a new fantasy series by debut author Adrian Tchaikovsky. Here is my review, with some extra commentary at the end of it:
The Wasp Empire is on the march. That this is a Bad Thing will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever tried to evict one of the little gits back out of the window from whence it came. Translated to a fantasy world where humankind is divided into a host of races, each taking traits (wings, hive-minds) from an insect, Wasp-kinden are parasitical imperialists par excellence, single-minded conquerors who run their state on enslaved labour.
This insectile-humans premise is inventive, shaping the world in all sorts of ways. The races fall into two broad categories: the industrious, rationalist 'Apt' – Beetles, Ants and the like, who can use and make devices ranging from locks to dirigibles – and the instinctual, mystical Spiders, Butterflies and Moths of the 'Inapt', who cannot. The latter used to rule, but were left behind by a political and technological revolution several centuries ago and are now reluctantly dependent on their less glamorous cousins.
Although he cannot resist the odd infodump, Tchaikovsky mostly explores the resultant personality differences and social tensions through his teenage characters' experiences. Understated moments, like Spider Tynisa's complete inability to work a crossbow, stand alongside larger character arcs, such as Beetle Cheerwell's crisis when confronted with magic, something she has been taught is impossible.
The main plot itself is, disappointingly, a pretty conventional one, with our band of adventurers trying to halt the evil empire's advance, all the while getting captured by the bad guys, travelling long distances, and developing crushes on each other. The pedestrian prose helps not at all. Here's hoping for more of the fascinating social upheaval and less of the spooky fantasy woodland in future volumes.
Since I have some extra space here on EA, I'll just expand a little further on some of the above points. The world-building is, as I've said, excellent and intriguing. As ever, I found most interesting those aspects of the plot and characterisation that arose from the circumstances of the world, rather than the more routine genre-fantasy elements, like the forbidding magical woodland through which certain characters have to travel. The history is sketched in well, and is slightly unusual for a fantasy in its emphasis on social and economic currents rather than simply the Great Deeds of Great Men.
Any fool could pick up a crossbow and kill a man with it, any Beetle-kinden, or Ant, anyone Apt. Bows were an artform, crossbows but a moment in the learning, in the making. The world had been turned upside down within a generation by men and women armed with the crossbow and the pulley, the hand-pump and the watermill. All the old masters of the Lowlands had been unthroned.
The way the technological revolution shaped and still shapes the world - like the on-going tensions between Apt and Inapt, present both among our teen protagonists as well as in the world at large - is made clear without overpowering the narrative's present (although the references to an older character's own past are a little more forced). Most of the different kinden still live and work alongside each other in the same cities without overmuch conflict - apart from the Wasps, of course, and also the Moths seem to be largely in retreat - but it remains to be seen in later volumes whether the stress of war and occupation expose deeper faultlines. Certainly there are some far-reaching divergences of outlook among the main characters, even if the friendships, though tested, largely survive the first volume.
Particularly interesting, and presumably to be explored further, is the issue of the physiological and psychological differences between the kinden. As I said above, these operate on both a personal and a broader social basis, influencing the ways the kinden as communities arrange their lives as well as what an individual is capable of. Here is Tynisa the Spider (an initially annoying, preening character who blossoms, so to speak, in a relatively brutal storyline that involves her becoming a hired assassin for a time) struggling with a lock:
She simply could not do it: there was no place in her mind to conceive of the lock, the link between the turn of the key, the immobility of the door. Of all the old Inapt races, the Spider-kinden still prospered as before, but that was only because they found other people to make and operate machines for them. Spider doorways were hung with curtains, and they had guards, not locks, to keep out strangers.
While some of the traits are clearly innate, one can also infer that some are socialised, produced through assumptions about what certain kinden can and cannot do, can or cannot feel. Tynisa and Cheerwell ('Che'), in particular, both have experiences that confound their expectations to some extent, and are changed as a result: Che, through her relationship with a Moth, moves away from her strictly rationalist mindset/upbringing (and does, indeed, learn to fly, although this is very unusual in Beetles), while Tynisa discovers that she has a greater capacity for both violence and compassion than she imagined. This issue is also raised from another angle, that of hybridity: certain characters (not all know it) are of mixed parentage, and must adjust their boundaries and self-image accordingly.
As I said in my original review, I found the book roughly equal parts fascinating and frustrating. After a striking prologue, set some decades before in a city about to fall to the Wasps, we settle into a pretty conventional narrative for the first hundred pages or so: a loose group of adolescent schoolfriends go to lessons, bicker, make eyes at each other, agonise about their futures, and then are recruited by their teacher (who, of course, has Secrets) to join him on what is supposed to be a brief, safe information-gathering trip to a nearby city. It is here, with the plot insufficiently distracting, that the flaws were most apparent; on several occasions, I found myself wincing at the more clumsy bits of dialogue and exposition.
Even after this - as the pace picks up, the peril levels are heightened, and the pages turn more quickly - the over-familiar journey-separation-adventure-reuniting structure never really looked in doubt. Nor do most of the individual characters' storylines - Tynisa's aside - feel as consequential or affecting as they might. But overall this is a fun read filled with good ideas, and I suspect the author is one to watch. I'll be reading the next, certainly!