Monday, April 16, 2012

Book Review: Empire in Black and Gold

As anyone who has known me for any length of time will attest, I have always looked down on the Fantasy genre with the reflexive snobbery of a long-time Science Fiction Fan. I was at least partly cured of this after my "Big Year of Reading Fantasy" although I still feel pretty wary of it's tics, tropes and seemingly self-inflicted limitations of what the genre is allowed to be. I'm still more than capable of getting a little snippy about it, but at the same time there is an increasing amount of it on my bookshelves and I came back from the SFX weekender with 3 out of 4 books bought being Fantasy. And its starting to look like my next big reading obsession is a Fantasy series too.

Oh dear, team.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold fits right in with what seems to be the big trend in Fantasy at the moment, which is a certainly amount of introspection as to what the genre is, and a pushing back at the boundries to try and make it a bit broader. Mostly, this seems to manifesting in "grimmer and darker", with writers like George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie and others moving into full-on deconstruction of Heroic Fantasy, or building series around more noir-ish (and borderline unpleasant) characters from the get-go. Tchaikovsky, at least on the basis of the first book, is moving in a slightly different direction, and rather than taking throwing his toys around in a more traditional Fantasy setting, he's throwing them around in a noticably different one.

There are two big distinctive elements to Empire in Black and Gold - the insect thing, and the technology thing. The former is a clever way of creating distinct races without falling back on the usual fantasy elves/dwarves/etc stereotypes  (at least too much). At some point in the distant past, Humans have evolved a sort of symbiosis with this worlds giant insects, gaining characteristics and semi-magical innate abilities from them. These "Ancestor-Art" abilities have some overlap - several races can manifest art-wings, for instance, or body weapons - but the combinations are unique, as are distinct body characteristics and fairly strong mental characteristics, both good and bad. Interbreeding is definitely possible, but hugely frowned upon, and the resulting half-breeds seem a mixed bunch in terms of whether their mixed heritage is a boon or a curse.

I'd say Tchaikovsky overdoes it occasionally with cameos of new insect-kinden, especially as the book neatly unpick the "main" races at a leisurely, story-led pace and doesn't always need a "oooh! it's a thingy-kinden" popping up, but it does imply a wider world and they're usually pretty interesting characters in their own right, and the ancestor arts are pretty much always interesting and appropriate.

The other big thing is the technology. I'm still not sure why Fantasy technological evolution seems to stop dead before the renaissance, apart from when some villain feels the need to spontaneously invent gunpowder, but Empire in Black and Gold's world is pleasantly different. For a start, the big historical upheaval that led to the way the world is was driven by technologically-adept races overthrowing their non-adept (its like a mutual mental block between magic-users and tech-users) and establishing a new order, and technology, shockingly, has continued to evolve. Sure, its "fantasy" technology in the sense that its a bit woolly at times, and may not stand up to "real world" examination (what are the zeppelins filled with, exactly?) but by god its nice to have a fantasy world with trains, factories, early flying machines (of all sorts of types) and ironclad warships. If nothing else it makes for fantastically distinctive and busy battle sequences!

The story itself is also pretty interesting - sure, an elder parental surrogate gathers a band of adventurers together to fight an encroaching enemy, but it's quickly more than that, a story as much about politics and intrigue, with rounded characters on all sides, and in many ways Empire in Black and Gold is unashamed of being Heroic Fantasy because its telling a complex and mature story without having to resort to a truck-load of brutal torture and violence against women to probe how dark it's being. I don't know if its intended but it feels like a real rejection of medievalism as a base-line fantasy settling, with a more18th century trade-and-industry feel to the politics of it all.

I think it's a credit to how much I enjoyed it that I immediately rushed out and bought (and read in short order) the second book in the series. So yeah, another Fantasy series got its hooks into me, dammit. Oh Dear. Oh Dear indeed.