How did I get it: I bought this book along with several other volumes in the Shadows of the Apt series from a Frugal Muse more than a year ago.
Why did I read it: I’ve been meaning –and actually trying– to read this for ages. Originally I thought I’d wait until the series was finished but I’ve bought all of the books so far. (I have a feeling I’ll be ordering the 6th and 7th book from the UK in the near future.)
How I would rate it: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Not quite a 4, but very close.
The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.
But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, it killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable.
Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people, before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the Lowlands and burns away everything in its path.
But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.
Review: While the writing was solid from the get-go, I had a hard time getting through the first 100 pages. This was complicated by the difficulty I had caring or connecting to any of the characters during that initial opening. However, once the book started picking up steam, had a bit more humor to it, and had a lot of awesome moments in rapid succession, I couldn’t put the book down.
This world is not one to miss and what really worked was the originality that came from everyone having insect totems and powers. When the book was surprising and fresh, it was an exhilerating read. I loved learning what bug connection resulted in what ability. Tchaikovsky’s imagination was just a wonderful, wonderful place to visit, pure and simple. Nothing truly tarnished that experience for me, but during the sections or moments where the book became a hodge-podge of familiar Fantasy themes I definitely felt it was less engaging.
Some of this comes from expectations and readering preferences. For example, I didn’t like the whole need to make sure everyone had some girl or guy to like as they quest to save their world from evil. I think it was a bit ridiculous, and it made me hard to like characters who often had no motivation for falling in love outside of having spent time around whoever it was they suddenly had feelings for. Similarly, the roles women were assigned also baffled me more often than it impressed. There’s very few female warriors, far too many slave girls who seem to sympathetize with their captors, and even the Wasp Empire has an Emperor.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this genre and –to paraphrase Uncle Ben– with great love comes the not-so great realization that Fantasy tends to have more Kings, Lords, and Emperors than it does anything else. I understand that these are people who have adopted insect-like powers so obviously I wasn’t expecting them to necessarily be exactly like the bugs they emulate. I was expecting more surface level connections than deep ones, but at the same time the Ant kinden have a hive mind telepathy thing going on and some character even have slightly bug-like appearences. So what about the fact that bees, ants, and hive insects live in matriarchies? Or that a lot of male insects get some of the rawest deals available? Or what about just giving the Wasp Empire an Empress? I don’t really want to take up too much space in this review to speculate or babble on about this. I just feel it’s worth mentioning, and I hope that some of this is explored later on because I think it would add an interesting element to the story being told.
In terms of the characters themselves, my thoughts and feelings are all over the place. Ultimately, the book ended with me liking everyone well enough. Just not in any sort of equal way, which is bound to happen with as large and diverse a cast as this book proved to have. Cheerwell (Beetle kinden) was my favorite because of the authentic way in which she grew and became her own person. Achaeos (Moth) was my second favorite for a spoiler-filled reason but suffice it to say that this book contained a sweet little romantic subplot that I absolutely adored. I definitely liked Stenwold (Beetle) and Tisamon (Mantis).
I’m also sort of in love with Thalric (Wasp)… Which is probably not what was supposed to happen, but he was a cool spy and was one of the characters the reader gets to know fairly intimately. The fact that he’s a conflicted, messsed-up bad guy was what sealed the deal for me. I can’t wait to read more about him. Conversely, I still find myself rolling my eyes whenever I think of Tynisa (Spider/[spoiler] halfbreed), and Totho (Ant/Beetle halfbreed) and Salma (Dragonfly) both have a lot of catching up to do in terms of maintaining my interest. I’m sure I’ll connect more to the rest over time though. I definitely appreciated the wide range of personalities as well as the complexities of their backstories. Learning about everyone’s abilities was also really, really entertaining. I particularly liked the really well-developed minor characters like Sinon Halfways (Ant/Moth halfbreed) and Scuto (Thorn Bug).
In conclusion, a very good and solid start to a series I’m well on my way to becoming addicted to. I wish a few more Fantasy conventions had been shrugged off, but I’m so glad I bought Empire in Black and Gold and even more glad that I finally read it all the way through. If you’re a fan of the Fantasy genre with an unique twist, you’ll gobble this right up.