The second volume, Dragonfly Falling, is even better than first.
# # #
Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold (Pyr, New York, trade paperback, 418 pp., $16.00, ISBN: 978-1-61614-192-9), the first novel in the Shadows of the Apt series, marks one of the most accomplished heroic fantasy debuts since Scott Lynch's Locke Lamora. At various times during my reading, I was reminded of Lynch, of China Miéville, of K. J. Parker, and even, underneath it all, holding the novel together and providing its irresistible narrative impulse, Tolkien. Tchaikovsky is not the equal of any of these writers, not yet, but he is smart and talented, and he's got imagination to burn.
In the dim prehistory of Tchaikovsky's fantasy world, human beings, at the mercy of gigantic insects, entered into a form of communion with what I suppose you could say were the platonic essences of the various species, in the process infusing physical and mental characteristics of those species into themselves genetically via some kind of sympathetic magic. Now, millennia later, humans belong to various kinden, all associated with a particular type of insect and its attendant attributes, both physical and metaphorical. For example, Ant-kinden are linked in a kind of hive mind; Spider-kinden are subtle and devious manipulators; Mantis-kinden are gifted fighters; Beetle-kinden are slow and stolid engineers; Dragonfly-kinden are graceful flyers and seducers. Some of the insect-derived abilities are innate, while others—such as flight—need to be awakened via a process known as meditation. This process comes more easily to some individuals than to others. "The Art was common to all the kinden, yet unique to each."
For time out of mind, the Moth-kinden, Mantis-kinden, and Dragonfly-kinden, among others, held absolute, godlike power over the other, lesser kinden. Then, about five hundred years ago, those subject kinden awoke to practical attributes within themselves their masters lacked. In an analogue to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution all rolled into one, the slaves threw off their oppressors by means of new ways of thinking—and technologies invented and manufactured via those new ways of thinking. The kinden possessing these new abilities are known as the Apt. Under sustained attack by ideas so alien as to be incomprehensible, and by weapons and modes of warfare too efficient to be countered by traditional means, including magic, the old empires—with a couple of partial exceptions—crashed and burned. Magic was equated to rank superstition, and reason was elevated to its vacated throne.
Now, in place of the dusty empires of the past, vibrant young kingdoms of Apt kinden strive to grow and prosper, struggling—sometimes violently—against each other and against atavistic remnants of their former overlords who, reluctant to admit defeat, wage a guerrilla war and continue to practice their old traditions, including a debased but sporadically effective magic. The brash city-states of the Lowlands, with the ancient kingdoms of the Spiderlands on one side and the Dragonfly-kinden–dominated Commonweal on the other, are the steampunky hotbed of Apt innovation, trade, and rivalry.
A prologue relates the fall of an Ant-kinden city on the outskirts of the Lowlands. The city has been besieged by an invading army of Wasp-kinden, who come equipped not only with Apt weapons but with a magical sting of their own. Resplendent in their black and gold armor, the Wasps fight with a mechanized precision not even the hive-minded Ant-kinden can match. The city is betrayed, possibly by one of a group of outsiders from various kinden ostensibly come to observe and help in its defense. That group is led by Stenwold Maker, a Beetle-kinden from the city of Collegium, home to the Great College, center of Apt learning. Also present is a Mantis-kinden weaponsmaster named Tisamon, terse and deadly. Missing at the pivotal moment is Atryssa, a Spider-kinden, and it is assumed by all, but especially by Tisamon, who has flouted a centuries-old animosity between the two non-Apt races by falling deeply in love with her, that it is she who betrayed the city to the Wasps.
Flash forward seventeen years. Stenwold is a master at the Great College, a position from which he has tirelessly, in the manner of Churchill, warned of the imminent invasion of the Wasps, whom he believes to have an agenda of world domination. Like Churchill, he is a voice in the wilderness, mocked by a political and mercantile elite who prefer the easy illusions of present prosperity to the grim realities of what lies ahead. In their folly, the Lowlands Apt are actually arming the Wasps, who in the meantime have embarked on a long war against the Commonweal.
That war has now ended in a truce favorable to the Wasps, and Wasp emissaries and ambassadors are entering the Lowlands in unprecedented numbers. Stenwold fears the hour of the invasion he has been predicting for seventeen years has come round at last. He has done more than predict it; in his own way, he has tried to prepare, using his post at the College to recruit his students into a spy network that now extends all across the Lowlands—including the city of Helleron, where the Wasps seem to have taken a special interest.
Unfortunately, they have also taken an interest in him, as reflected in an assassination attempt that nearly succeeds. Shaken, Stenwold sends his latest batch of college-age recruits, most of whom are far from being prepared for such a mission, to Helleron, where they are to meet one of his agents already in place. This group consists of a halfbreed apprentice engineer, Totho; a Dragonfly-kinden named Salma, a prince among his people; Stenwold's niece, Cheerwell, called Che; and Tynisa, a Spider-kinden girl of mysterious parentage whom he has raised as his ward. Needless to say, these young people are bound with tangled threads of resentment, unrequited love, and hidden secrets. It was at this point that I began to notice similarities to a group of Hobbits dispatched by a certain gray eminence to Bree; there are echoes of Lord of the Rings here, no mistake, but not to worry: Tchaikovsky is not going the Terry Brooks route. He's taken the basic skeleton of Tolkien's masterpiece, but the flesh and blood are all his own.