It’s been a little while since I settled down with a proper fantasy book, and considering that the blurb promised a threat of a huge invading army I was more than happy to take a look at it. When I actually got round to reading Empire in Black and Gold though, my husband took one look at the cover and said, “Oh yeah, I remember reading that. Wasn’t a fan.” With that rousing recommendation, I forged ahead anyway.
After witnessing the invasion of the city state of Myna, an artificer by the name of Stenwold Maker has appealed to his peers in his home city, the Collegium, in the hopes that his warnings will lead to a better defence against the armies of the Wasp Empire. It soon becomes clear that few take his warnings seriously though, so he must recruit agents from amongst his own students, in the hopes that they will be able to muster their own allies and defences. When the Wasps arrive in the Collegium under the pretence of allegiance, he knows that he has run out of time for preparation.
At its core, Empire in Black and Gold is a solid fantasy and an excellent foundation for the rest of what I have just found is quite a lengthy series at this point. A lot of its success can be attributed to some interesting world-building. While in other fantasy series you would encounter races of elves and dwarves alongside the regular, boring humans, Tchaikovsky has instead opted to go with multiple races of human, all of whom share traits with certain insects. For example, the aforementioned Stenwold Maker is a Beetle-kinden, which means that he’s methodical and tenacious, while an ally of his, Tisamon, is a Mantis-kinden and thus very combat-oriented and deadly. An interesting concept which makes for some unusual sources of conflict, as certain races are gifted with machinery while others are gifted with more magical arts. On the other hand, it does create one of the biggest holes in the world-building that just doesn’t make sense no matter how I look at it.
So, the reader finds out rather quickly, through the character of Totho, that halfbreeds are very taboo. Totho, as a half-Ant/half-Beetle hybrid, is treated with only the barest of courtesy by most of the cast, with no real prospects for a career and with some outright willing to beat the stuffing out of him because of his mixed heritage. It makes up a HUGE part of his character, and I would be interested to see how that pans out. Now, with the taboo surrounding halfbreeds being so ingrained in this society, you would naturally assume that mixed race relationships would be similarly looked down on. Nope. The only time it’s addressed is when Totho expresses interest in a girl. One of the main leads, a Spider-kinden girl, expresses interest in one of her friends fairly early on, and the fact that he’s Dragonfly-kinden doesn’t seem to bother her. In fact it kind of acts as a bonus for her, as his race are comparatively rare where most of the plot is set and therefore exotic. I just don’t understand how you can have Totho on one hand, a character who has been completely browbeaten on the sheer basis of who he is, and then have several budding romances between people of different races go more or less entirely uncommented on. I just don’t understand how that can work, as one prejudice should naturally lead to the other. If mixed relations are okay, then there needs to be an in-universe reason why the offspring of those relations aren’t okay, and we’re never made privy to it. It is a comparatively small part of the world-building, but it just annoys me.
A solid fantasy with some intriguing world-building. I would be more than willing to continue the series and see how the politics and war stuff pans out. Unfortunately not all the world-building makes sense, with the attitude towards halfbreeds compared to the attitude towards mixed race relationships being the most obvious. Still worth a read though. 4/5
Next review: The Fires by Rene Steinke