Friday, April 23, 2010

Review Post for Friday, 4/22/2010

So, my day job is in academia - I teach college classes. And this time of the semester, as we start to wrap up and give and take final exams and write and grade final papers - this is probably the worst time to start a new side project, especially one involving a great deal of reading. Which is not an excuse, but merely something to say that, based on past experience, I had expected to have read more than 1 or 2 books by this point in the week.
Anyway, here's what I read this week.

Adrian Tchaikovsky - Empire in Black and Gold

This is a book about a bunch of people who are also bugs. Tchaikovsky never attempts to explain why they are bugs, but there are beetle people and ant people and mantis people and spider people and fly people and moth people and scorpion people and wasp people, and they all have certain traits which make them those people.

Before you flee in terror, let me stress something - this book was really really good. I think that, in addition to the stage of the semester, contributed to my slow pace - solid books are often harder to read quickly than fluffy ones. Actually, that's probably the definition of a solid book, right? So, what did I like about this book? First, it hit all of the things I enjoy in a good book recently: 1) politics and war, 2) swashbuckling, 3) a nice touch of steam(punk?), 4) good, meaty characters who it's possible to care about. I think the 4th is the key element - without that, everything else is just window dressing. This book has #4 in spades; nuanced good and bad characters each with a whole array of believable motivations, motivations which are often in conflict with each other. Do I do what is right for the Empire; do I do what is right for me; do I do what is right for this friendship; what do I do when I cannot do all three?

There is a deep back story here - a lengthy history which Tchaikovsky reveals in tantalizing snippets. Sometime in the distant past - centuries ago - the nations strong in "art", or magic, enslaved the nations strong in "apt", or technology. There was a rebellion, the Apt won (repeating crossbows will defeat cunning magic most days of the week), and now the resulting world is endangered by an Empire of the Apt - the Wasps. But, because selling Wasps weapons is good business, many people refuse to see that the Wasps will inevitably turn on the weapons-makers. So, on one side of the story, we have a bunch of stalwart folks who see the encroaching danger set out to establish a defense of those who do not wish to be defended. And, in the process, finding themselves asking if what they are setting out to defend is worth the effort. So there's your politics and your war and your intrigue and your spies and such. Good stuff. On the other side, we have the loyal officers of the Empire seeking to do what is good for the Empire, and firmly believing that what is good for the Empire is good for themselves. Until it isn't. And I believe I mentioned that above. And they spend most of the novel racing around, jumping off of things, fencing with each other, preparing to take revenge, finding lost children they didn't know they had - and there's your swashbuckling. And the whole thing culminates in a battle royale around a brand new steam locomotive, so there's your steam. Is it steampunk? That must be the subject of a future post on what, exactly, steampunk is or is not. I can entertain the possibility of arguments stating that Empire of Black and Gold is steampunk (the author, for one, believes that it is), and arguments that it is not (this book is neither Victorian, nor science fiction). Although I tend to defer to the author in this sort of situation (unless the author is patently wrong, and I don't think that's the case here), neither of these arguments matter much in the long run, because what Empire of Black and Gold undeniably is is a really really good book.

One warning, perhaps. At present, there are 4 books in this series (in England, only 3 here in North America), with a 5th at the publishers, and a projected 7 books total. This is good, if you like the series and enjoy the characters and want to see more, but does raise the unpleasant possibility that the series will never be done.

I would be remiss if I did not include a link to Mr. Tchaikovsky's blog, which answers a great number of the questions about backstory and pre-history.

Nancy Atherton - Aunt Dimity's Death

After Empire, this book was a nice change, much lighter. Where the previous book was solid, this book was airy, and where the previous book was tantalizingly unresolved, this Aunt Dimity was delightfully complete within its own covers. It had good characters, and the whole thing sparkles. I'm not sure how to classify this book. Later books in the series are mysteries, but this one wasn't quite. It's a ghost story, and it's a romance, and there are elements of mystery there too. At any rate, it was a nice palette cleanser after Empire, but I don't know how hard I will look for the next book in the series.