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on 8 June 2009
It's good to see that - in amidst all the authors who are content to trot out the same old tripe about farmboys and reluctant princes in dull secondary worlds - there are still some writers that attempt to produce something a little different. Writers who actually understand that some degree of innovation is required for the secondary-world fantasy genre to avoid stagnation...and care enough to provide it. British author Adrian Tchaikovsky is one such writer.

Upon first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that Empire in Black and Gold is just another epic fantasy. An oppressive empire intent on taking over the world, some young heroes - guided by an older mentor - determined to stand in its way, and so on. Nothing special, nothing original there. Until you discover that the humans of this world all possess insect characteristics, and suddenly you've got something totally different.

It's such a simple idea, but hugely effective. Wasp soldiers (like the fellow on the cover) that can sting their enemies...and fly. Mantis warriors with bladed forearms and a furious bloodlust pumping through their veins. The spiders and their crafty intellect, the beetles and their industry...the list goes on. The result is something both familiar and yet totally exotic, a heady mix that just offers so much potential (which Tchaikovsky is quick to exploit). Couple these various insect-kinden with a curious world in which steam/clockwork technology features heavily, and you have a rich, vibrant setting which proves to be a real strength of the novel. There's no bland 13th century Europe replicas here.

Tchaikovsky proves an equally dab hand at populating his world with intriguing characters and competently builds up several believable relationships. The four young protagonists (Salma, Cheerwell, Tynisa and Totho) are perhaps a little stereotyped in parts - Cheerwell, for example, being the classic coming-of-age character - but they're all developed well. Refreshingly, all receive similar amounts of 'screen time' and Tchaikovsky flits smoothly from one POV to another (often within the same chapter, even paragraph). The antagonist - Captain Thalric - is the star of the show for me, a finely-crafted individual who fights a constant battle between his sense of duty and his conscience, a theme that Tchaikovsky handles with commendable depth and skill.

Plenty of other themes are explored as well, such as innovation versus tradition, which lends serious weight to two relationships in the novel. Various complex relationship issues are also probed, adding real depth to the characters involved and serving as a reminder that - for all their insect 'ancestor arts' - the characters are undeniably human. To complement his absorbing world and characters, Tchaikovsky serves up a solid plot with one or two twists that keep things fresh. His prose is admittedly more solid than stylish, and could have done with a bit more of a lyrical flourish at times. That said, the writing is competent, clean and - most importantly - instantly accessible.

The novel's not perfect: the first third is weaker than the rest of the novel and at times seemed a little lightweight, though my initial fears about Empire in Black and Gold straying into YA territory later proved unfounded. Other minor flaws persisted - for example, Cheerwell seeming to hold her own in one or two fights was a little hard to swallow given her clear martial failings earlier on. Such complaints however are minor and don't spoil what is a very promising debut from a bright new British author.

Ultimately, Empire in Black and Gold is as strong a debut as I've seen in some time, with some real innovation and solid characters and worldbuilding. A novel that is refreshing when compared to many recent books in the same genre. Well worth checking out; Tchaikvosky has real potential to become a big name in epic fantasy.
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on 21 March 2010
I read until I finished the book in the early hours of the morning because I simply could not put it down.

'The Empire in Black and Gold' tells the story of Stenwold Maker and his student agents who believe that an invasion of their homeland by the neighbouring Wasp Empire is imminent. They are soon caught up in schemes to undermine the enemy whilst trying to overcome the attitude of ignorance that most of their fellow countrymen have about the threat.

The first thing to be said about the book... it is about humans. Not quite like you and me maybe, but even though the various races are described as 'beetle-kinden', 'spider-kinden', 'moth-kinden' etc... and have peculiarities that relate to the name (moth-kinden for example like the night), they do not look like giant spiders, ants etc... and it is easy for the reader to relate to the characters. Each race has certain special attributes, for example, 'ant-kinden' can hear each others thoughts, which adds a lot of fun to the proceedings.

Fun. That is the main impression. The book was very entertaining and fun to read. Lots of action, great characters and a good adventure plot line. It is maybe not as in-depth in the world description as some like it, not as consistent in the way magic and technology are applied and used as could be, but you will note that even those who criticized, still enjoyed it. Guilty pleasure maybe?

If you are looking to find an entertaining fantasy read you won't be disappointed. If you are expecting high-brow, deep and meaningful, realistic in every detail... maybe wrong genre. Five stars because I ordered the next three in the series the moment I finished this one and I already know that it is a book which will end up on my regular re-read pile.

Update: One and two were my favourites, book four the least enjoyable, mainly due to the story progressively getting darker. I suppose this was inevitable as the war with the wasp empire intensifies. The good news is that there is a kind of closure at the end of book four, so even though there is more to come, you could almost read these first four books as a completed series. In this day and age of having to wait years for the next in a series, I quite appreciate that 'pause' effect. Overall I would rate the first four books a three-and-a-half to four star read. Given the price at the moment (April '10) you get excellent value for money.
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on 9 July 2008
I picked up this book on a recommendation and I'm not disappointed. Its a fast-paced and interesting book with a good mix of characterisation and action. Nobody is truly good or truly bad, or even truly what they seem - even the "big bad guy" Thralic has admirable qualities, and the "good guy" mentor figure could be said to be a little without morals in a lot of his methods.

What makes it truly stand out is its setting, which throws out standard fantasy conventions in favour of the "kinden", humans who share some of the traits of insects (and can use "the Art" to manifest some of their physical characteristics). The Mantis=kinden are superlative lone warriors, the Spider-kinden are the well-known manipulators of the world, the hive-mind Ant-kinden are masters of warfare, and the list goes on. An industrial revolution has run roughshod over a near-medieval world, with ornithopters, lighter-than-air ships and curious gadgets.

A final thing worthy of note is the author's easy to read and erudite style.

You'll like this if:
- You enjoy action-packed, but intelligently plotted, stories.
- You enjoy a book that draws you in to twists and turns.
- You like different, exotic concepts built on a solid fantasy base.

You'll dislike this if:
- You don't like your fantasy without Elves and Dragons.
- You don't like technology in your fantasy.
- You prefer whiter-than-white heroes and linear plots.

This is a great book, and I am looking forward to the sequel.
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on 3 September 2008
This is a good and enjoyable book, but reading the other reviews I'm wondering if I read a different book! They've all be blown away by this book but I wasn't at all. I enjoyed reading it and might pick up the next when I want something light to breeze through, but nothing more than that.

It reads like it's aimed towards the younger end of the market so I might be a bit old for it, but it is certain an adult book. While I liked the ideas it was playing with the execution didn't always work as well as it could have. There were a number of things that just didn't ring true, in terms of plot progression as well as internal logic of the world, and the prose didn't spend much time trying to paint a picture, but overall it passed the time pleasantly enough.

As long as you don't expect the finest book you've read all year, you should enjoy it.
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on 5 November 2016
Really glad I tried this book, easily the best book I've read in some time, believable characters and original ideas, others have commented on the storyline so I won't here. I've nearly finished the second one and have to say I am so pleased there are another 8 to go!
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on 15 July 2009
When reading the average fantasy story the reader often encounter a world in black and white, where good is good and evil is evil. "Empire in black and gold" tells the story of the insect-kinden world, at constant conflict. A world which is plauged by racism and patronism, but yet each and every individual, good or evil, believes that what he or she is doing is the right thing - and does it with best intentions. And yet, the characters are tempted and intrigued by the world of their sworn enemies, on both sides, their minds constantly in conflict. It is a very interesting story which hails the age of the engineer (the "artificer"), while at the same time condemning the concept of engineering as that of death and warfare. The reader also encounters the magic of the old age, and more universal things such as confidence, love and friendship.

Dont't let the title or the strange cover give you a scare, I highly recommend this book.
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on 20 July 2008
Picked up this book last weekend and finished it in three days flat. It drags you through its pages by the eyeballs!

Set in a world of multifarious human races who each share a bond, or kinship, with a different kind of insect (Or, to be fussy, arachnid). So we have Beetle-kinden, stolid, industrious workers and inventors, the warlike Ant-Kinden, whom like nothing so much as lopping each other's heads off, manipulative spider-kinden, terrifying warrior Mantis-kinden and the like.

Oh, and then there's the wasps. The bullying, militaristic wasp-kinden who, unbeknownst to the wilfully ignorant people of the Lowlands, are gradually taking over the world.

This is an exciting, pacey book. Tchaikovsky develops a fascinating, original fantasy environment and drops into it a host of vividly realised characters who then run the gamut of a plot crammed with intrigue and jeopardy, double-crosses, desperate escapes, captures, daring rescues and the like. Oh, and fights. Lots of great big fights. It's tasty stuff, frankly.

The protagonists are supported by a host of well conceived secondary characters such as the beautiful Butterfly-Kinden Grief In Chains, and (my particular favourite) the irascible Scuto the Thorn Bug, a man from a race so ugly that they can't even bear the sight of each other.

Perhaps it can be a little vague on occasion - I would have enjoyed a bit more of the political intrigue, and more descriptive information on the world the characters inhabit (it's supposed to be a world without mammals like dogs and cows, so why are there horses? Or people, come to that? Did I miss something?)

But these are small complaints really, and I have faith that they'll be addressed, because at the end of the novel there's the promise of even more good stuff to come in later volumes. Roll on Dragonfly Falling, I can't wait!
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on 13 January 2012
I bought this book thinking that the writer was offering something a bit different from the usual fantasy fare. A world that has some develpoment of science and technology rather than the medieval Europe setting, races that share aspects with insects rather than elves and dwarves. I really wanted to like this book.
Unfortunately, the whole thing came across like one of those awful, limp Shannara books.
Both Tchaikovsky and Brooks have a very bland and shallow writing style. There's just no emotional connection to be made with the characters at all. Take Cheerwell Maker. She's an inexperienced, sheltered teen. Within the course of the story Che is nearly raped and nearly tortured but she might as well have had her hair pulled for all the emotional fallout she suffers from these traumatic events. It's also specifically mentioned that out of all the characters, she's the worst with a sword but before long, she's swinging it wildly, taking out battle hardened veterans with great ease. Stay within the character, mate!
Another character arc deals with Tynisa discovering who her real father is. At first we're told that she's angry, then they have a duel and everything is alright again. It just comes across as leaden and clunky.
There's also a lot of fight scenes in the book. Nothing wrong with that but they tend to be very detailed descriptions of every thrust and parry that happens but no real feeling of desperation, fear or anger that characters may be experiencing. Just thrust, parry, thrust, parry, stab, dead. For several pages.
There were glimmers of depth. Thalric, one of the bad guys, is committed to his empire and will do what is necessary to achieve it's goals but has some unease at the methods used showing him to be more than the evil for evil's sake cliched enemy, thankfully. However, he isn't exactly overcome with remorse for his actions so it's hard to feel any sympathy for him.
Like I said, I really wanted to like this book but it's so similar to Brooks(poor characterisation, bland descriptive style, undeveloped ideas and everthing in it is just a plot device anyway) that it's not worth reading anymore to see if it improves. Brooks never did.
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on 18 January 2015
Now THIS is how you start a series. An interesting mix of races, all with different insect-like characteristics and a world on the edge of an industrial revolution makes for a winning mix. Bring on book 2
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on 3 July 2008
The first thing that strikes one on reading this book is the huge scope of Tchaikovsky's world, and the originality he brings to the genre, the second is the story itself - it grabs hold of you... and won't let go...

One of the defining characteristics of Tchaikovsky's world are the various races that inhabit it. Whilst predominately human in appearance they differ in personality and talents according to the insect their race, or "Kinden", is named after. For example the Beetle-Kinden are industrious, sturdy and capable with machines as well as innovative. The Mantids, or Mantis-Kinden are brilliant warriors though with ancient beliefs and haughty demeanour. The Ant-Kinden are fantastic soldiers whilst lacking the industry or innovation of the Beetles or the individual prowess of the Mantids.... the Spider-Kinden thrive in the murky web of politics and manipulation... I could go on and on.... each insect seems to be matched with a Kinden, and aside from influencing their personality it defines their "ancestor art" a type on inherent magical talent or collection of talents, differing from one race to the next...which adds an extra dimension for the mind to savour...and the story to utilise.

The story is a brilliantly crafted, allowing one ever more comprehensive glimpses into the world and it's history, as well as gripping you in its web.

The central character, or at least the one whom all the others revolve around, is a Beetle-Kinden named Stenwold, who suffers from a nasty case of the Cassandra complex, he is the only one in his city who sees the threat posed by the expansionist empire of the Wasp-Kinden, which borders the "Lowlands" a divided collection of city states, in one of which Stenwold lives.

As no one believes in the threat posed by the black and gold empire Stenwold, sets out to do all he can to prevent the destruction not only of his city but the whole of the Lowlands

Joining him are his brave but gentle niece, his feisty ward, an exiled prince and a doughty half-breed.

It is a tale fraught with espionage and intrigue, highlighted with feats of daring, duelling and swordplay ...and I can't say any more without giving the plot away...suffice it to say that if you're a fan of fantasy, you should definitely give this one a try....
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