Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review - Empire in black and Gold

Empire in Black and Gold - Adrian Tchiakovsky

I was unsure whether or not to read this series. Generally, I am very much a traditional fantasy book lover. I like my stories gritty, with the magic kept to a minimum. I usually abhor any modern technology in the fantasy setting but the concept behind Tchiakovsky’s series seemed quite cool and so when Amazon offered the first book at a ridiculously low price, I relented and bought it.
The Blurb:
Seventeen years ago Stenwold witnessed the Wasp Empire storming the city of Myna in a brutal war of conquest. Since then he has preached vainly against this threat in his home city of Collegium, but now the Empire is on the march, with its spies and its armies everywhere, and the Lowlands lie directly in its path. All the while, Stenwold has been training youthful agents to fight the Wasp advance, and the latest recruits include his niece, Che, and his mysterious ward, Tynisa. When his home is violently attacked, he is forced to send them ahead of him and, hotly pursued, they fly by airship to Helleron, the first city in line for the latest Wasp invasion.Stenwold and Che are Beetle-kinden, one of many human races that take their powers and inspiration each from a totem insect, but he also has allies of many breeds: Mantis, Spider, Ant, with their own particular skills. Foremost is the deadly Mantis-kinden warrior, Tisamon, but other very unlikely allies also join the cause.

As things go from bad to worse amid escalating dangers, Stenwold learns that the Wasps intend to use the newly completed railroad between Helleron and Collegium to launch a lightning strike into the heart of the Lowlands. Then he gathers all of his agents to force a final showdown in the engine yard ...
I am unsure how much I liked this book and I can’t put my finger on why. All of the ingredients are there for a really good novel, but somehow it did not resonate with me like it should have done.
The concept behind the story that every character belongs to an insect type is very good. For example, Mantis kinden are fierce warriors, whilst Ants are good communicators and builders Tchiakovsky introduces the idea well, whilst also taking care to ensure that not all “Wasps” and “Beetles” are generic despite displaying similar traits.
I think the main issue I had was the lack of main characters. Tchiakovsky adopts multiple point of views in his narrative but does not really focus on any. The plot focuses around Stenwold, a man considered eccentric because of his strong belief that Collegium and its neighbouring regions will soon be invaded by the wasp people. Tchiakovsky tries to portray Stenwold as a man content to let others believe he is more useless then he is, but never convinces to demonstrate otherswise. Instead, for someone who is supposed to be leading a resistance, he is remarkably passive and events seem to happen in spite of him rather than any influence he has. I also lost count how many times he asked his friends to follow him and was surprised when none of them backed out.
His students make up the majority of the other POV characters. Some of these are stronger than others: Che for example, grows from a whiney, insolent little girl into a hardened survivor. She is swept along with events and lives up to the reputation of her beetle-kinden; Whilst Totho comes across as love sick puppy who has an interest in being an Artificer.
The strongest of the characters is Tynisa who actually has a well planned and fleshed out back story that is slowly uncovered. As she learns of this past she begins to develop her natural abilities that she is not always comfortable with. As a result Tynisa’s story therefore, is compelling and definitely one of the plus points in the novel.
There is one attempt to tell the story from the “enemies” point of view in the form of Captain Thalric. Thalric is a conflicted member of the empire torn between his love for the empire and his disillusionment at the corruption within.  I would have liked more time spent with Thalric as he is definitely an interesting character and was a means for exploring the desperately under seen “Wasp” point of view.
The other characters that have POV’s are not so three dimensional. In fact they seem to exist only to progress the plot. Which leads me nicely on to another reason the book might not work as well as it should - The plot does not really exist.  Rather than have a series of POV characters each with their own motivations and goals, Tchiakovsky decides to just let things happen to people. The story is driven by set piece after set piece and the character with the POV seems by default to be the one where the action is. All of the other POV characters then seem to fall into place as a result. Whilst this sounds as if I am being negative, it is not meant to be. The story works fine, it just seems to be lacking a character driven plot.
The concluding battle is satisfactory but is nothing different from the skirmishes we have already experienced in the novel. There was a distinct lack of build up to the final battle which harmed its impact. Overall then, Tchiakovsky’s debut novel is successful is lacking in a few areas. I enjoyed the story for the most part and will definitely continue with the series.
My Rating: 8.1

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