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Firsts in Fantasy: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Empire in Black and Gold (Book 1 of the Shadows of the Apt series) introduces the world of the kinden – humanoid races based on, and taking the aspects of, insects. Hence you have the wasp-kinden, the dragonfly-kinden, and so forth. These races are then split further into those who are Apt (able to use technology) and Inapt (unable to even function when given a piece of basic machinery).

The story itself, in my opinion, provides a great stepping on point for those who enjoy fantasy but have not read a great deal of it up until now. There are very familiar fantasy tropes present: a marauding empire determined to crush all others beneath them; a group of adventurers who complement each other’s skills; technology versus magic. However, Adrian Tchaikovsky builds a world that “feels” very different, considering that there has been an Industrial Revolution, and the magic races are in decline. Hence you have a familiar fantasy story wrapped in a very exciting world.

So why should people be excited about the Shadows of the Apt?

  1. Adrian Tchaikovsky is a fast writer – so far we’ve seen six novels in the Shadow of the Apt series released, with seven and eight on the way, while Tchaikovsky has started work on the ninth. You won’t be short of material to read if you take up this series.
  2. Tchaikovsky also has an active website, which contains a plentiful amount of FREE bonus material – short stories, artwork, inspirations behind the work, soundtracks to each novel.
  3. Shadows of the Apt is one of the first fantasy series that contains arcs as well as an overall story – for example, books 1-4 are, in essence, the first chapter of the story, while book 5 changes location and tone. Some people have suggested that you can actually start reading at book 5 (The Scarab Path), although I would encourage you to kick off at the beginning since you’d miss much that is good and Tchaikovsky is building his back story for a reason.
  4. Although the kinden can be equated to races seen in traditional fantasy (beetle-kinden = Dwarves; dragonfly-kinden = Elves) Tchaikovsky has actually created an entirely unique world within the fantasy genre. No one else has used insects in this way and it leaves the reader feeling as though they are being presented with something absolutely fresh and new.
  5. Tchaikovsky writes male and female protagonists with great equality. His female characters are as intelligent, brave and industrious as the men. For much of the time in Empire in Black and Gold we follow the characters of Cheerwell Maker (a beetle) and Tynisa (a mantis/spider half-breed), both of whom drive the plot forwards and have a great part to play.
  6. Because of the different breeds of insects in the book – and the capacity for half-breeds to exist – Adrian Tchaikovsky does a fantastic turn in presenting prejudices of all kinds. Prejudices of Apt versus Inapt; full-breeds versus half-breeds; and the innate prejudices between certain breeds of insect (mantis and spiders do NOT like each other). This enables Tchaikovsky to present ideas about why prejudice might exist, what constitutes racial slurs, how prejudice can be overcome. This gives Empire in Black and Gold a surprising depth.
  7. Since Tolkien, we’ve been presented with the idea that industry, machinery and science are somehow always BAD and EVIL — much of our fantasy is based in a faux Medieval setting, where swords are the upper limit in terms of how weaponry has progressed. In Shadows of the Apt we have trains, flying machines, guns! It changes the nature of the story, and allows the reader to appreciate that, actually, science isn’t awful.
  8. Tchaikovsky doesn’t allow his world to stand still. There is no aim to return to a bucolic tranquil status quo — the story arc forces progression, forces new technology, allows us to meet different races of kinden. For me, this is far more realistic than hearkening backwards all the time.
  9. As in fantasy such as A Song of Ice and Fire, our characters in Empire in Black and Gold are not outright good and evil. We can enjoy shades of grey. One of my favourite characters in the novel is a wasp-kinden, a member of the invading race. We are forced to realise that sweeping generalisations are not permitted where races are concerned (which touches on point 6 again).
  10. Finally, there are some BAD ASS characters in Empire in Black and Gold. The mantis are supreme fighters, and they ROCK. Personally, I could stand a whole novel about Tisamon — a mantis weaponsmaster who can take down enemies by the score. The Inapt characters, in particular — moth-kinden, spider-kinden, dragonfly-kinden, mantis-kinden — are enormously cool, and help Empire in Black and Gold retain a very strong fantasy flavour.

There you have it! Ten reasons why you should be running out to pick up the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series. Why are you still here?


Amanda Rutter contributes reviews and a regular World Wide Wednesday post to fantasyliterature.com, as well as reviews for her own site floortoceilingbooks.com (covering more genres than just speculative), Vector Reviews and Hub magazine.

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