Review: Empire in Black and Gold

Posted: March 17, 2010 by in Books We Love (5/5 single_star) Meta: Adrian Tchaikovsky, Fantasy

If there was one 2010 fantasy series that had us chomping at the bit, it was Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt. Finally, after salivating over its inevitable US release, we finally got to taste the dish that the UK has enjoyed without us; EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD (Amazon).

How about we start from the outside? The cover art on EMPIRE is simply unbelievable (and yes, the covers are as awesome on the two sequels we also have in our hands; DRAGONFLY RISING and BLOOD OF THE MANTIS). You know we judge books on their covers all the time. The cover of EMPIRE lends perfectly to its content, and gives the immediate impression of war and chaos. It is in our personal opinions that our US covers for this series are far superior to their UK counterparts. About time, right?

So, after gazing lovingly at the cover for a good long while, we opened up EMPIRE hoping the unique premise we had read about was delivered. It could have gone wrong. Horribly wrong, even. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a far cry from bad, or even mediocre.

Just think about it. Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, human races have taken on aspects of different insects. You know as well as we do that this could have been sooooo bad. Instead what we are really given is a slightly more unique take on dwarves and elves. Honestly, we were a tad disappointed initially. Too many of the different cultures in EMPIRE were far too reminiscent of the races we have already read about a thousand times. One of the aspects that a culture takes in EMPIRE is that of the Beetle. They may as well have been called dwarves. The Mantis? Elves. Thankfully, things didn’t go much further than that. We were given enough unique ideas to balance the thinly veiled similar ones–like the Ants, who are incredibly cool warriors that, obviously, think collectively–that the presentation was fresh enough to keep us involved. Realistically, the majority of the readers won’t immediately identify the disguised clichés, and really even when we realized what was going on, we were still swept along by the story. This, dear readers, is the mark of a good storyteller.

Now, one thing we didn’t know going in, was how full the world would be. In EMPIRE, we are introduced to a whole lot of world. A world where the melding of technology, industry, and the traditional fantasy elements we are familiar with is at near perfection. There are complex machines used, and all are well designed and described, as well as their relationship to the culture created in EMPIRE. The moment the quasi-steampunk elements began being introduced, we began to genuinely be sucked into the world.

With a multitude of races (insect-aspects), naturally comes a multitude of conflict. Fear, ignoring danger for profit, crucifying religion for reason, racism, etc. It makes for a very engaging fantasy book. The issues are tangible and real, without feeling arbitrarily political. At it’s core, EMPIRE is an extremely thoughtful book while telling an entertaining tale.

What is the book about? The easy answer is the Wasp Empire is on a conquering spree, Alexander the Great style. Our main PoVs, basically, are spies. In the first chapters, Tchiakovsky gives a real sense of threat. No, not during the initial attack by the Wasp Empire in the first chapter (which is really more of a prologue, and is quite awesome in itself). It is after, when the main character Stenwold realizes he has spent years and years preparing, and has still run out of time. When we are introduced the other four main PoVs (naturally each being of a different insect aspect to fully showcase the diversity), we are treated to their attempts to fully grasp the magnitude of what an invading Wasp Empire means.

Tchiakovsky is a gifted writer, but perhaps his biggest failing was with PoV. We both had frustrations with the swapping of multiple PoVs on the same page. It was almost an omniscient perspective, but… not. He would stay at an omniscient level, but then delve down into 3rd Person Limited when it suited… and then back to omniscient. The other big problem was description during fight scenes. It was all very generic and drawn out. We have come to expect and want, especially from UK authors, a certain sense of immediacy and danger to the violent scenes. EMPIRE just didn’t have it.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, after all was said and done, didn't let us down with EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD.

EMPIRE is a fantastic first book that opens up an intriguing series. Despite some of our problems, we really were easily caught up in the story that Tchiakovsky weaves. There were very few lulls in the pacing, and we can only expect this will get better later as Adrian improves his writing. Since we just put down EMPIRE, we can say that honestly, we are itching to pick up the sequels.

Adrian Tchaikovsky, after all was said and done, didn’t let us down with EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD. Take our advice and go pick this book up.

  • Recommended Age: 15+
  • Language: Not really
  • Violence: Yep, but as we mentioned before, sometimes the scenes are vague, and it hurts the action a bit
  • Sex: There are some frank discussions on it, but nothing on an R Scott Bakker level


  • Shivertongue says:

    I almost picked this up the other day. Not sure why I didn't, other than possibly waiting for your review on it. Still up in the air about buying it, but as a lover of steampunk I will definitely be checking it out.

  • Dan Smyth says:

    Huh. Well…dang. Jumping POVs AND omniscient/limited swaps? You know, there are some things that I just can't stomach in any kind of novel and these two are really big ones. Nuts. I'll probably still give it a try, but this report pretty much just crushed my hopes for being able to read it without giving up pre-ending. Ah well. Thanks for the review guys. You do an awesome job.

    • Shivertongue says:

      I don't mind jumping POVs so much, if they're handled well. Omniscient does bother me a bit, being my least favourite perspective.

    • Anonymous says:

      did the omniscient pov reveal stuff that would have been impossible otherwise ? , i found it quite hard to recognize omniscient because it was so sudden and so short

    • thelec says:

      I read this and didn't find the jumping POV's/omniscient thing too revealing or annoying though it was prominent enough for me to notice on multiple occasions…

    • The PoV oddity is more of something that we just had to adjust to. By the time we were finishing up the awesome novel, it wasn't a big deal. It certainly isn't something that should stop you from reading the novel. If you don't read this, you will be missing out.

  • kaylisf9d9 says:

    I enjoyed book 1, so I bought book 2-3. Unfortunately, about 400 pages into book 2, I gave up. It was just battle after battle, with a few cliched hero coming of age in between.

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