Adrian Tchaikovsky's fantasy debut has been garnering a lot of positive online reviews since it was published last summer. So much so that I was eager to finally give it a shot. I was glad when fans selected Empire in Black and Gold for me to read in one of my latest polls. About 30 pages into it, I began to wonder exactly what was supposed to be so special about this book. But I kept plodding on, hoping and expecting things to take a turn for the better, and that the novel would start to deliver in the next chapter or the one which followed. To my dismay, the story never took off for me. . .
Which is not to say that Tchaikovsky's debut is a mediocre effort. It's a good enough fantasy novel, but nothing special or spectacular. As some fans pointed out on various message boards, the main story arc simply doesn't measure up with the original setting and the innovative concepts contained in this book. In the end, that makes for a rather uneven reading experience.
The worldbuilding is more or less standard, with an "evil" empire bent on domination threatening to take over the world. As a matter of course, only a handful of freedom fighters realize the risk posed by that empire, and they're the only people standing in its path. Taken at face value, such a premise is nothing to write home about. What makes the setting so special is that every human race possesses insect characteristics. Every insect-kinden and their ancestor's Art make for truly unusual concepts. In addition, the presence of technology and mechanical contraptions give Empire in Black and Gold a unique and different "flavor" from what's out there.
The characterization is probably what sort of killed it for me. Populating this creative world is a cast of clichéd characters. Indeed, beyond the "bug factor" which differentiates this book from its peers, each character has been seen countless times before in a different guise in a variety of fantasy novels/series. You have the badass killing machine fighter, the sexy yet deadly girl, the nerd who saves the day, the bad guy who develops a conscience and begins to question his actions, and so on and so forth. Add to that the fact that there is a near-total absence of character development throughout the book, and you end up with a characterization that leaves a lot to be desired. One would think that the tribulations they experience would result in a certain measure of character growth, yet that proved to be a vain hope. Che, Tynisa, Salma, and Totho hold on to their black and white world views basically from start to finish. As far as realism is concerned, à la R. A. Salvatore the good guys always manage to beat incredible odds and somehow live to fight another day. In that respect, Empire in Black and Gold feels more like a sword and sorcery offering than an epic fantasy work.
The pace is good for the better part of the novel, but the rhythm does drag in certain portions of the tale. What hurts the narrative the most is the somewhat sloppy POV jumps that see the point of view change without any sort of demarcation. At times it's hard to follow in which character's head the reader is supposed to be.
Overall, the political intrigue is decidedly simplistic and lacks depth. The Nazi influence was a nice touch to begin with, but the execution felt a little flat as the story progresses.
Some imaginative concepts allow Empire in Black and Gold to score some points. But the subpar characterization takes a lot of the lustre away from what could have been a superior tale.
For all its faults, Empire in Black and Gold is nevertheless an entertaining read. It's a book to bring on vacation, or for the morning commute. Beyond the insect-kinden stuff, this novel is pretty standard "fantasy lite" fare. It's a good enough tale, no doubt, just not something that will stay with you long after you finish it.
The final verdict: 6.5/10