Monday, May 6, 2019

Empire in Black and Gold - part 1

If Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold isn't the GLOGosphere's favorite novel, it probably should be. In the first place, all the characters are technically human, but they're also all "insect-kinden", members of fantasy races and societies who liken themselves to different insect species, bear some physical resemblance to their namesakes and bear some supernatural powers that resemble them too. In the second place, the setting is an industrial, pre-apocalyptic world where the various societies of the Lowlands are on the cusp of a catastrophic invasion by an unstoppable army from just outside their borders.
All the different insect-kinden have access to what are essentially psychic powers called "The Art." A person can learn to access their Art by meditation, and it manifests in different ways in the different human races, and apparently there's some variation among individuals of the same race. (Only some Beetle-kinden can fly, for example, and those who can are much slower and clumsier than any other flying race.) When someone summons their "Art-wings", they appear like they're made of light, and the same is true for some other physical manifestations, like the Wasp-kindens' "Art sting." Art also lets Ant-kinden communicate telepathically and Spider-kinden manipulate people's emotions, but it ALSO also lets the Mantis-kinden grow bone-blades from their forearms, and it supposedly accounts for the Beetle-kinden's superior durability.

Tchaikovsky refers to the human races using capital letters, and actual insects using lowercase. So "Beetle-kinden" and "Beetle" refer interchangeably to humans, while "beetle" refers to the insects. There's not much animal life of any kind in the novel, but aside from humans, I think that horses are the only mammals we see. Meanwhile insects are sometimes as large as horses or elephants, and fulfill similar domesticated roles.

The Lowlands are a relatively self-contained region, protected from their neighbors by ocean on two sides, desert on a third, and a "The Great Barrier Ridge", a very Grand-seeming canyon that led me to spend a little time pondering if Tchaikovsky had set his novel in the far future of the real world. I think actually the geography here is supposed to kind of resemble Central and South Asia, but also maybe Southern and Eastern Europe, and the invading Wasp Empire seems like both the Mongol Horde in some ways, and like the Roman Empire in others.

The most industrious people are the Beetle-kinden, who control the liberal, cosmopolitan college city of Collegium and the sprawling, industrial-capitalist city of Helleron. Beetles are shorter than the other races and fatter. They're also the most mechanically adept - or "Apt" - and are the most similar to any readers who hail from liberal democracies in the contemporary West. Three of our viewpoint characters, Stenwold, Che, and Totho, are all Beetle-kinden.

Stenwold Maker reminds me a little of Isaac dan der Grimnebulin from China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. He's a middle-aged man of science, confronted with problems whose origins lay outside his worldview. I think the two are cut from the same cloth, and Isaac's life might be a bit like what Stenwold's life would have been like, if he hadn't adopted an infant daughter and raised her, hadn't adopted his niece as a ward to give his daughter a sister, if he had the opportunity to devote himself to his machines, instead of being forced by circumstance to become a spymaster and a statesman, so that he could learn about the Wasp Empire's activities, and try to influence Collegium's policy against them. (I guess he's also a little like Benjamin Franklin, now that I write this out.)

Cheerwell Maker, "Che", is Stenwold's niece and ward. When I think of her I usually just see Glimmer from the new She-Ra series. Totho is Stenwold's apprentice. The other two viewpoint characters are Tynisa, a Spider-kinden woman who Stenwold raised as his daughter, and Salma, a visiting prince from the Dragonfly Commonweal who understands the importance of opposing the Wasps. Spiders are incredibly adept at emotional manipulation, and Dragonflies just seem to be generally very graceful. We also see a Mantis Weaponmaster, Tisamon, in action, and he's the sort of fighter who can mow through an unlimited number of enemy combatants like an out-of-control grain threshing machine, the kind of fighter who basically can't be defeated in normal combat, because there simply isn't room to surround them with enough opponents to actually defeat them. (If Dragonflies remind me a bit of D&D's monks, Mantis-kinden are like barbarians with unlimited rage. If you used this as a setting for a game, you might want race-as-class character classes, or you might want to give each race 2-3 classes that are tied to it.)

The other place the Lowlands reminds me of is the fantasy East Africa of the Charles Saunders' Imaro stories. Saunders' Nyumbani is filled with a variety of societies and ethnicities, but his heroes are from beyond the boundaries of the lands any of the other characters are familiar with. They have "powers" that are common among their peoples, and those peoples are themselves repeatedly described as "semi-mythical" when Saunders explains how they seem to the majority of Nyumbanians. Imaro himself is a raging warrior whose upbringing resembles a fictionalized version of the Maasai peoples' traditional lifestyle. Pomphis is a pygmy sage who seems to have read and to know everything (a bit like the "lore" ability of D&D's original bards, hmm...), and Tanisha comes from a society that I think is supposed to seem a little like the Nubians after the end of their rule of Ancient Egypt. The point is, in both Saunders' world and Tchaikovsky's we have several heroes from distant lands, whose appearances and abilities seem almost supernatural to local observers.

As I mentioned, the Lowlands are in the midst of an ongoing, Beetle-led industrial revolution. The other "Apt" peoples are the Ant-kinden, whose skin-color derives from their city, and whose cities war endlessly with each other, and the Fly-kinden. (Incidentally, Ants from the city of Tark, and later, desert-dwelling Scorpion-kinden, are the only peoples described as having "pale" or "white" skin, although the Wasps are all blonde, I believe. Everyone else has a skin-tone that would make them a person of color in contemporary America, except the moths who are grey, and the people of Mynes, who have blueish skin.) Spiders have their own kingdom to the south of the Lowlands, and Dragonflies live further north. The Lowlands used to be dominated by the Moths, who enslaved most of the other races, but by the time the book opens, Moths mostly live in caves beyond the outskirts of their old cities.

The Wasps are also Apt, and they're organized as a conquering army. Literally every Wasp male is a soldier, and all their other work is performed by slaves taken from their conquered peoples. From the beginning of the novel, their Empire is large, unified, organized, and preparing to pour into the Lowlands and conquer everyone. The Beetles have been selling them weapons for decades, every Ant city expects that the Wasps will conquer the other Ants and leave them alone, so Stenwold Maker is nearly alone as a voice of reason. Slavery is a common enough practice in the Lowlands (and some characters even observe that Helleron's factories practice a kind of wage-slavery) but if Lowlands' slavery is like the kind practiced throughout the Ancient World, then the Wasps' slavery is more like the chattel slavery that Europe and America perfected between the Age of Exploration and the Civil War. That is to say, all slavery is bad, but some kinds are indeed worse than others, more dangerous, more dehumanizing, less escapable - and the Wasps plan to convert all the peoples of the Lowlands into property.

We get introduced to the Beetles and their scientific world-view first, and only later learn that the "in-Apt" races - the Old races who ruled during the Age of Lore before the Beetles' and Ants' revolution overthrew them - that they believe in magic. "Magic" is separate from Art, which is part of why I think of Art as being more akin to psionic power, and for most of the book, it's not clear whether the Beetles' or Moths' worldview is more accurate. Certainly within the industrial society the Beetles, Ants, and even Wasps live in, there is no room for or appearance of magic. It's only what happens outside those societies that makes magic's existence seem possible.

I should mention, the in-Apt peoples literally can't use technology. They can't pick locks or even fire crossbows. Individually, their citizens fly better, fight better, and are just generally more cultured and skilled than the masses of the Apt, but Beetles can make machines, and use them, and overwhelm the others with their sheer numbers. Beetle equality is the key here, because of course the "citizens" of Spider or Dragonfly society doesn't really include their lower classes, who are unlikely to receive such extensive education or training to develop their abilities. And there just aren't enough aristocrats to defeat entire armies of the middle class. (If you were modeling this in a game, you might assign Technology Levels to different species, and use those to restrict their ability to use various equipment. In a kind of balance, the Old races get more innate powers, while the Apt races get better tools.)

And then the Wasps, like something from Max Weber's nightmares, represent a kind of rationality run amok, able to outnumber and out-compete literally every society they encounter. While the Beetles' universal citizenship and compulsory education give them their military and economic edge over traditional societies like the Moths, it also makes them vulnerable to the authoritarianism and universal conscription of the Wasps.

(After writing this, I checked to see if there was a sequel, and learned that Empire is the first in a series of 10 books. I'm not especially interested in watching the kind of thumb-twiddling you have to do to keep mostly the same set of characters in the same unresolved narrative arc over the course of like 3-4 thousand pages, but if you enjoy reading fantasy series, I suspect you could do worse.)


  1. I kept thinking of the old Sectaurs toys while reading this post (although I imagine that's an inaccurate comparison).
    I definitely need to check out this book, though. Mantis-kinden with psychic bone blades sounds badass.

    1. I had the opposite problem with Steph Swainston's "The Year of Our War" - there all the humans have vestigial wings growing from their lower backs, but I found it very easy to forget that except when she included an explicit reminder.

      Here, yeah, MOST of the character look fully human, but I found it easy to forget that too. The Sectaurs aren't a bad visual reference. Half the time I imagined them as humanoid insects. So like, I usually thought of the Mantis as looking like a Thri-Keen or a Phraint, even though he's supposed to look basically human.

      Your probably would like the Mantis. I will say that Tchaikovsky writes a pretty good fight scene, and there's always something immensely satisfying about watching one master combatant just massacring his way though a crowd of novices.