From the back of the book (because I'm having a lazy moment): The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilisation, 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, its 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.
Empire in Black and Gold is an interesting little discovery. Adrian Tchaikovsky has been quietly churning out this series, which receives lots of solid but not glowing book reviews, for the past few years and now is the first time I've felt inclined to pick it up.
I say an interesting, rather than brilliant, discovery because Empire in Black and Gold is a mixed experience.
On the one hand, the worldbuilding premise that Tchaikovsky utilises is truly brilliant and unique. The concept of kinden - different races of people who have insect traits, such as mantis-kinden being swift and deadly - is like nothing I have ever seen before. I absolutely lapped it up. I adored the fact that each race had these different traits. I liked that there were Apt and non-Apt insect-kinden, with different approaches to life - mystical (on the part of the Moths) versus mundane (on the part of the Beetles). Tchaikovsky lavishly peopled his world with this wonderful idea.
Alongside this, Empire in Black and Gold is no usual medieval fare. Instead, an industrial age - with all that encompasses, including business, treaties and pollution - is what the reader is presented with. And this just adds further to the unique feel of the novel.
And, although it was rather heavy-handed at times, I enjoyed the moralising on how an Evil Empire cannot be generalised. The use of Thalric's point of view (one of the Wasp generals) allowed the reader to see that an invading force is made up of many people: "Well, next time you shed my kinden's blood, think on this: we are but men, no less nor more than other men, and we strive and feel joy and fail as men have always done." The Wasp Empire has echoes of Third Reich Germany, whether intentional or no, and this certainly adds a resonance and meaning to the novel that lifts it above other fantasy debuts.
I also admired the strong characterisation of both male and female protagonists. Although some of them, at times, felt a little like the stereotypical fantasy characters encountered elsewhere, they were all lively and embued with real charisma. I particularly liked Tisamon, the enigmatic Mantis-kinden, and will be interested to see where else his story is taken in future entries to the series.
On the downside, the plot - that of the aforementioned Evil Empire, with young protagonists able to tweak its nose as they come into their full powers - is much more pedestrian and familiar. As is the prose. No soaring heights here as from authors such as Jacqueline Carey or Guy Gavriel Kay. Merely a perfunctory job that conveys the storyline.
Without intending any derogatory meaning, I would say that Empire in Black and Gold is good solid Fantasy 101. With the lack of language, the minimal on-screen blood and guts, and the familiar tropes of fantasy, I would say this could be offered to readers just embarking on their fantasy reading "career". It gives everything you could want, to demonstrate what fantasy is all about, while also offering a wonderful world for the reader to discover and immerse in. Tchaikovsky has written a very commendable novel that doesn't reach the heights of such debuts as The Lies of Locke Lamora, but definitely offers more than the ordinary fantasy.
I guess the very best I can say is that I closed the last page of Empire in Black and Gold, and felt truly glad that this was the first novel in a series that looks to run for a lengthy period - because I want to be on board for the duration.