YEAH I KNOW I was whining only yesterday about not reading. But then I finished one. Here is a review, as posted in GoodReads yesterday.
Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I picked this up during one of the Kindle sales, intrigued by the idea of a fantasy adventure involving steam-punk bug-people. Who wouldn’t be? The premise is interesting; a vast, sweeping tale of empire-building and resistance, of friends and enemies, of politics and battles. And bug-people. And goggles.
The execution, however, is poor. From trailing prepositions to ugly phrasing, poor characterisation to menace-drained scenes, the whole thing read more like a set of stage directions than a novel. It felt like I was constantly battling the text in order to extract the meaning.
Nothing is left unsaid. Almost all action is reported through the eyes of a chosen character who then sees, hears, and feels everything (i.e. ‘he felt the ground shake’ rather than ‘the ground shook’), which renders the action less immediate, less exciting. If the author thinks another character will have an interesting thought, he has no qualms in slipping straight over and letting them have that thought, regardless of how entrenched we are in the mind of the main protagonist. They sense emotions in other characters even when the other characters are hiding said emotions. At one point a character ‘wonders if she imagined she saw respect’ in another character’s eyes and I had to close the book and have a little lie down.
As with many things in this book, I understood what the author was getting at but the inelegance of the phrasing made me want to cry.
The only flaw of good characters is that they are just too good – too self-effacing, too loyal – and of ‘bad’ characters that they are not bad enough. Romantic relationships are reduced to playground flirtations, friendships to jealousy-tinged arrangements of convenience. I don’t know what any of the characters are *like*. I know what they did, what they saw, what they understood; but I dont know what they look like except for a few dislocated physical characteristics (hair colour, location of spines).
The action travels quite nicely from one place to another, with some nice descriptions of landscape and architecture. Action scenes are described in loving detail, the body count high as any daft action movie, the gore tastefully low. Characters get into terrible situations but are then conveniently released before the author has to hurt them. None of these averted crises have any lasting effect on the character in question.
I don’t want to be too damning, because I admire the vision behind this book. I’m told its the first in a series of ten, with seven or eight already written. Given my trouble with sticking to one plot for a mere 50,000 words, I have to doff my cap. And it was interesting enough for me to finish, which is more than I can say for some things I’ve read. But the execution is poor enough that I couldn’t even read the bonus short stories at the end.
Summary: great vision, great world-building, but superficial characterisation and a writing style like fingernails down a chalkboard. 2/5.
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Donning my feminist tiara, I also have some other comments. Just some little things that struck me as interesting – not as sticks with which to hit the author, but as interpretations of the text. Spoiler, NSFW, and I guess probably trigger alert.
- a woman who enjoys the sexing is ‘excused’ from being termed a slut because ‘she didn’t sleep with all of them, of course’. Because, as we all know, sluts are bad, and she is a ‘good’ character
- a woman having sex in a situation which is at best coerced, is stated very, very carefully to have consented and possibly instigated
- a woman escapes rape purely because she happens to have had a weapon sneaked into a supposedly sealed room
- a woman escapes rape purely because the man can’t get it up
- a woman escapes torture purely because the guy threatening it had something else to do
- a male character goes off in a huff after being friendzoned by a woman who ‘thinks of him as a brother’ because he has given her absolutely no indication of any romantic interest at all
- a woman gets her ‘art’ only after receiving penis.
I don’t know if I have any specific comments on these things. OK maybe one at least. I felt the treatment of rape and torture were cowardly, at best. If you don’t want to glorify it, fine. But don’t toy with it. Don’t give convenient exits for the characters you like while silently throwing the rest of your population (female and male) under the bus.
I also thought there was a very interesting undercurrent of racism between the insect-kin that was mostly unexplored. Halfbreeds are derided, publicly disdained, but there seems to be absolutely no taboo about sex between species/races/kin/whatever.
Overthinking: I am doing it. But I’m a classicist. That’s what we do best.