2008’s Empire in Black and Gold is the first volume in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt decalogy. I should note that he completed the whole ten-book series in eight years. Completed, I say, completed. This may be of interest to certain other authors whom I will not name.
In the seventeen years since the Empire of the Wasps conquered the Commonweal city of Myna, Stenwald has been unable to convince his fellow citizens that Collegium (as well as the other city-states of the Lowlands) are on the Wasps’ to-conquer list. Most Lowlanders find it comforting to believe that the Wasps are sated with conquest. Stenwald knows that the Empire was merely taking its time to recover from its long war with the Commonweal.
Now there are hints that the Empire has recovered.
While Stenwald does not have his city-state’s backing, he does have his small circle of friends and family: niece Cheerwell, his ward Tynisa, their friends, well-born Salma, and mixed-race Totho, not to mention his old friend Tisamon. While he’d prefer not to put his friends and loved ones at risk, the fate of the Lowlands is at stake. In any case, a foray to gather information does not seem all that dangerous. Cheerwell and Salma head off to Helleron.
Where Collegium is (unsurprisingly, given its name) a city-state of scholars and philosophers, Helleron is a city of merchants and manufacturing. Collegium invents cunning new ideas. Helleron implements them, with very little concern for how they will be used. As long as their clients have the money to pay them, the merchants of Helleron will happily sell the rope with which the merchants will one day be hanged.
All of this means that by the time Cheerwell and friend reach Helleron, its great and powerful have been thoroughly suborned by Wasp intelligence agent Thalric. The Empire of Wasps is Helleron’s best customer, so it’s just good business sense to hand any supposed spies over to the Wasps. Spies such as Cheerwell and Salma.
By the time Stenwald learns what has happened to his envoys, Cheerwell and Salma have been sent into the heart of the Wasp Empire. Wasp agent Thalric intends to force from Cheerwell everything she knows of opposition to the Wasps. Thalric’s plan runs into problems, namely:
Thalric’s superiors, who send him off on an unrelated errand.
The ancient magic of the Commonweal.
Stenwald and Tisamon, who are determined to rescue Cheerwell and Salma even if they must venture into the Empire itself.
The worldbuilding for this series is far from typical of SFF.
Author Adrian Tchaikovsky really likes insects, so each humanoid kinden (clan, more or less) takes its essential nature from a different kind of insect. Stenwald and Cheerwell are Beetles, for example, Tisamon is a Mantis and Prince-minor Salma is a Dragonfly. Each kinden has a talent or specialty: some can fly, some are covered in barbs, and the Wasps can fire bolts of energy from their hands.
You may wonder: “how is it that the kinden remain so distinct? Wouldn’t there be intermarriages?” Yes, there are, but they are rare, thanks to racism. Which is nigh-universal and vicious. Both Totho and Tynisa are mixed-kinden. In Totho’s case, his companions pat themselves on the back for treating him like a person, although they probably would not bother if he didn’t happen to be an exceptionally talented artificer. Tynisa is half-Spider and half-Mantis. Her estranged father hates her, because she looks like her mother and because her very existence proves that he violated rules against miscegenation.
A second feature of Tchaikovsky’s odd world is that magic and mechanism are inherently opposed. A mind that can wield the arcane arts is unable to understand the simplest machine. A magic-user might be able rip out souls, but they would not be able to understand the workings of a doorknob. The opposite also appears to be true of the Apt, as the machine-using kinden call themselves. They are so unable to comprehend magic that when faced with it, they decide that it must be mere trickery. Given that Eldritch Horrors do exist and are something one could encounter while out camping, inability to accept the reality of magic is a potentially lethal blind-spot.
As for the political setting: this is essentially a secondary-world, fantasy, steam-punk take on what might have happened had the Mongol Army faced off against the Greek city states (ed: Sounds more like Persians versus Greeks.) In this world, technology does not make sense: people are still using cross-bows and swords, but there are also trains, airplanes and zeppelins. (Well, yeah, that’s the sort of thing I notice.)
One might read this as another “free West versus the evil East” adventure, but there are nuances. The Empire and its ways are terrible, but some of its officers flirt with being … well, good is an overstatement, but they do have morals. It is just that they do what they admit is evil in the service of what they see as the greater good. They’re not just all-conquering barbarians. They’re all conquering barbarians with a tendency toward self-justification,
Moreover, the Lowlands and the Commonweal to their north are not exactly the good guys. Institutionalized racism, for one thing. Also, while they eschew the overt slavery practiced by the Wasps, the Lowlanders are more than happy to exploit their working classes. Their rich cheerfully sell out to the Wasps. And … the magic users of the Commonweal are wilfully blind to the idea that anything new could be significant1.
While this is very much the first volume in an ongoing series, a decisive event occurs by the end of the book; the novel is not mere scene-setting. I also found Stenwald, Cheerwell and company, even blindly patriotic Thalric, to be an engaging lot. Will read on.
1: Not to mention that the mages are probably serving Dark Forces. There is an evil grove of evil trees of evil that turns up at one point. I don’t want to go all Durkon Thundershield here, but never ever make a deal with an evil tree. Or a grove of evil trees.