Empire in Black and Gold is a novel a started a long time ago - and never finished. Burdened with this sense of shame (hah), I have returned to vanquish my opponent with a review. Which will start with this:
Empire is very traditionally non-traditional. What do I mean by that? Well, it changes things that are easily changed: but leaves the core elements untouched. We've got new races, the Ant-kinden and Beetle-kinden and x-kinden, who draw abilities from their namesakes. Some new magic. But the tropes are mostly unchanged: we've got a band of assorted heroes struggling against an evil invading empire, the Wasps. Sound familiar?
That's not to say Empire is bad. Its protagonists are likeable, especially Cheerwell (is it just me, or does this sound a little hobbitish? Probably just me). It's set against a background of the Inapt magical races failing to keep up with the Apt, their former servants, who are able to use machines - a nice twist. But I can't help getting the feeling that we could have got a more interesting story out of this. In the beginning of the book, they visit an industrialised city struggling against raiders from the threatened Moth-kinden - which, if done before, could have been a starting point for something else. Stenwold Maker, ostensibly a master statesman and artificer, could have been a dazzling manipulator, rather than a more straightforward fantasy hero.
It was, nevertheless, enjoyable. it's well written, lengthy enough to give you plenty to think - and read - about, and has a cast sufficiently varied for most tastes. Unfortunately, that's also where another of my problems with the novel steps in. Whenever you define a fantasy race as having a particular trait, a set characteristic, there is a delicate line. This line is crossed when race or nationality starts being a shortcut to characterisation - or even the whole of it. For those of you who've read David Eddings, you'll know what I'm talking about. (And don't even get me started on the 'evil' races...)
Unfortunately, I do think this line gets crossed in Empire in Black and Gold. It's not far over, but several of the x-kinden and y-kindens do seem to define pretty big portions of character. Also, there is a scene in which one character gives another a massage as a special technique to 'awaken their art'. Really. I'm sensing some excuse plotting there.
As you can probably guess, Empire is - to my mind - far from perfect. A stock plot, a reliance on origin to guide personality, and just not going far enough prevents this novel from being great. What it is, however, is fun. If you can forget a few stock occurrences, the plot is not easily guessed, and there are some truly fantastic moments. This shouldn't be your first choice, but if you're looking for a lighter epic fantasy, this is worth picking up.
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