Book Review: Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Continuing with the theme of Sci-fi Summer, I thought I would tell you all a bit about the second book I completed for my reading challenge. Empire in Black and Gold, the first installment of the Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is really more of a high-fantasy work with sci-fi elements, including steampunk and military sci-fi. Instead of elves and orcs, you have various Peoples with insect-inspired traits, powers, and strengths. The Wasps, for example, can fly and produce stinging fire from their hands, and are an aggressive and military people. They are poised to take over the Lowlands, and only the old Beetle Stenwald Maker and his young protégés see the threat. Can they open the eyes of the Lowland leaders and stop the invasion before it’s too late? You’ll have to read the series and see.

EmpireBlackGoldWhile this work doesn’t fall into my usual genre of Young Adult, at least half of the characters focused on in the first book are teenagers. The main adult perspectives come from Stenwald Maker, an aging Beetle-kinden who witnessed an early battle of the Wasp takeover seventeen years ago and whose warnings have been falling on deaf ears ever since, and Thalric, a captain in the Wasp army, whose dedication to his empire is at war with his humanity. Aside from them, first we have Cheerwell Maker, Che for short. She is Stenwald’s niece, and starts out fairly insecure and uninteresting when juxtaposed with her more exotic friends. Che constantly compares herself to her sister-like companion, Stenwald’s Spider-kinden ward Tynisa. Che finds herself dumpy next to Tynisa’s lithe figure and clumsy beside her deft sword skills, yet Che nevertheless grows into her own by the end of the book. Rounding out their sparring team, which becomes their core group of friends, are the dashing exiled Dragonfly prince Salma and the industrious artificer-in-training half-breed Totho.  Perspective in the novel bounces back and forth between these characters and more as their storylines intertwine, diverge, run parallel, and meet up again.

Like many high fantasy works, the best part of Shadows of the Apt is the world-building. The premise is highly unique, in that Tchaikovsky uses his zoology background to create races that parallel different insect species (though don’t be confused, they are actually people-shaped, not six-legged and crawly). Each time a new race is introduced, I get excited to learn what their culture is like, what their Ancestor Art (something akin to magic) is, and what their relationships to the other kinden are like. The world is on the cusp of both industrial revolution and war, allowing the author to explore the genres of steampunk and military science fiction, as well as fantasy.

BeetleKinded art by David Mumford from the author's website
Beetle-kinden art by David Mumford from the author’s website

While steampunk can be fickle and often cliché, Tchaikovsky writes it very well. The Beetles, whose realm most of the novel is set in, are artificers, craftsmen who produce many of the weapons used on both sides of the war with the Wasps. Totho is particularly skilled in this area and scenes of him in his workroom, armored in a leather smock and goggles and working on an air-pressure-driven projectile system, are just about as steampunk as you can get without crossing the line into parody. To make things more interesting, only some of the races are Apt (that is, have the ability to use and create machines), while others are Inapt (having a severe biological predisposition to be technologically challenged). The world used to be ruled by the Inapt races like the Moths, Dragonflies, and Mantids, practitioners of magic and art. Only in the past few centuries have the Apt races, the Ants, Beetles, Wasps, etc. formally enslaved to the Inapt, risen to power through technological superiority. That was the beginning of an Industrial Revolution still ongoing as the first major railroad is being constructed between two Beetle cities and bigger and better zeppelins are being designed and tested out.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy, steampunk, military sci-fi, or just wants to know how people can be bug-like but like not real bugs and still be taken seriously. Have you read it before? Are you considering reading it after seeing my review? Let me know in the comments!

~ Sci-Fi Summer Reading Challenge Updates ~

Books in progress:

The Young Elite by Marie Lu

Books Finished:

Clockwork Fairytales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables Edited by Stephan L. Antczak and James C. Basset

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Current Level: Red Shirt

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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