Sunday, December 05, 2010

Ex Libris: Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold

As I've gotten older, my pile of books yet-to-be-read has gotten older as well.

Oh, I'm not saying that there are books in that pile whose pages have not yet been cracked open for some years now (okay, well, maybe there are). However, there is a slow progression of the type of fiction I read-- even if it is speculative fiction and even if it is epic fantasy.

On fantasy bookshelves recently, I've noticed that there are now a number of ongoing fantasy series that don't get my blood running. Despite the hoopla and the publicity over a particular series, if the books don't interest me, I really can't get myself to pick them out. Or worse, I try out a particular book but despite the interesting premise, the lack of craftmanship or poor story-handling drives me away.

Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case in the first book of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series, Empire in Black and Gold. In Tchaikovsky's debut effort, his vision of a human society composed of (or divided into) kinden, or using insect-characteristics is somewhat a step away from the usual troll/elf/dwarf/goblin races used in secondary world fantasies. For example, the beetle-kinden are intellectual and profit-minded, the ants are a collective, the wasps are individualist warriors, etc. Admittedly, these so far come off as the usual generic way to pigeonhole different peoples but Tchaikovsky still at least colors and shades each character differently somehow despite the labels.

The world itself inhabited by the kinden is one that is a combination of Italian Renaissance and Roman Empire with science (steampunk-ish even) gaining ground against the fading mysticism of the past age. In terms of world-building, it's still a bit flat though Tchaikovsky gets points for keeping everyone's attention on the present rather than on the past like a magician.

Storywise, Tchaikovsky writes a rousing tale of a Wasp empire slowly encroaching its domination among the other lands of the kinden. Fortunately, the beetle-kinden Stenwold Maker, an inventor who reluctantly becomes a spymaster, gathers a network of resistance to fight the wasps. From a single thread, Tchaikovsky manages to slowly parse-- and juggle-- the individual stories without any ill effects to the different storylines.

Overall, given how tiring it is to keep up with the nth iteration of the nth series, Tchaikovsky's debut does a pretty good job of keeping this jaded fantasy reader onboard. This despite the fact that the rather prolific author has already come out with the 5th book in the series and there's no end in sight. Keep up the good work, I say. Me, I'm keeping this series on my radar. (Rating: Three paws out of four.)

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