Opening Adrian Tchaikovsky's debut novel, Empire in Black and Gold, you'll be confronted with quite a lighthearted writing style, jam packed with innumerable stereotypes and unrealistic fight scenes, and a world that seems to consist solely of moral absolutes. To some extent this may provoke a feeling of warm familiarity amongst fantasy lovers. After all, everyone can grasp the concept that Elves are intrinsically good and Orcs are intrinsically evil. As the story progresses however, the initial simplicity is thrown into question: characters, factions and races becoming increasingly ambiguous.
Shadows of the Apt, of which Dragonfly Falling is the second book, is hinged about a simple plot. Stenwold Maker is a Master at the city of Collegium, which is, as the name suggests, an oversized college. For years he has been preaching about the dangers of the rapidly expanding Wasp Empire and the inevitable war it will bring with it. Eventually the Empire gets round to taking action against Collegium and so Stenwold and the various allies he has accrued over the years embark on a quest to unite the rest of the world against the coming threat. In all, it's nothing groundbreakingly original. The spice of the story, though, comes with the concept of "insect-kinden." In Tchaikovsky's world, humans are endowed with insect-like attributes: Stenwold, for example, is Beetle-Kinden, who are known as industrious and hard working people, gifted with mechanical prowess and, often, the ability to fly. Ant-Kinden, on the other hand, are a militant race of telepathic communists, continuously warring amongst themselves. The list goes on and on.
At a first glance, especially during the first few chapters of Empire in Black and Gold, this may just seem like a long list of powers and abilities designed to pigeonhole characters into their proper places in the story. By the beginning of Dragonfly Falling, though, it becomes clear that this is not the case. Although the majority of characters in the book are defined, to some extent at least, by their racial attributes, little by little they begin to resist the stereotypes that have been imposed upon them. Gradually it becomes clear that the world Tchaikovsky has created is caught between two possible futures: continuous racial divide or all-inclusive cultural harmony. Old enmities still exist, but they are rapidly making way for the necessary integration of a modern industrial world. The Wasp-Kinden, for example, find it useful to integrate conquered races into the Empire, recruiting them as "Auxillians" and allowing them to wear the black and gold armour that distinguishes them from other races. Similarly, Stenwold's quest to unite the Lowlands involves an inevitable breaking down of racial divides and prejudices in order to conquer the greater "evil."
Not everyone is satisfied with the direction the world is heading. Uctebri, a Mosquito-Kinden introduced in Dragonfly Falling, is positively livid that everyone is getting along so nicely: "'Light and darkness' said Ucterbri [. . .] 'That is the way we all used to see it'" (p. 253). Though this refers to hierarchies in general, it is clear that for Uctebri, racial absolutism is the old, traditional, and right way of doing things. Torn from a position of power centuries ago, his dwindling race of ancient throwbacks seem intent on reimposing their authority upon the world. Although his agenda isn't fully manifest by the end of the book, his mysterious reputation, voyeuristic tendencies and general sliminess suggest a future as one of the series' major villains. Even Stenwold, though—the protagonist, the father-figure of the series—is not completely devoid of his own little prejudices. Interbreeding amongst Kinden is heavily frowned upon by society and halfbreeds are pretty much stamped into the dirt, getting nowhere in life, not due to lack of skill or ambition, but because of the prejudices of others. "Is this what they have taught you, by hating you?" (p. 399) Stenwold wonders about one of his students, Totho. Barely twenty pages earlier however, Stenwold himself forbis Totho to marry his niece, simply on grounds of race. While he is doing the world a favour by bringing people together against a common enemy, Stenwold still presumes that people will conform to racial expectations, whether they are Mantids, renowned for their feral nature or Spiders, who have a tendency to lie. Occasionally this expectation will prove true. More often than not though, factions and individuals reject the roles imposed upon them, liberating themselves from the boundaries of race. "We are become their shadows," claims one of the Mantis Elders after being approached for help, "become the savages they take us for" (p. 503). Upon realising this, the Mantids decide to leave their foresty abode and join in with the politics of the rest of the world. Afterwards, they are promptly and ironically massacred.
Stenwold's hypocrisy is finally epitomised by his complete intolerance of Wasps in general, refusing to believe that any of them could be anything more than components of a thoroughly corrupt machine. In actual fact, many of the book's villains are far more endearing than its supposed heroes. While Stenwold Van Helsing and his merry band of latent racists parade about with their moral absolutes and social prejudices, Captain Thalric of the Empire is ten times more introspective, weighing up each action carefully and considering the consequences of everything he does. Rational, compassionate and with a clear sense of justice, Thalric's only real weakness seems to be his unquestioning loyalty to his superiors. He suffers small moral crises again and again, forced to perform his duties to the Empire in a way that opposes the ideals it stands for. By the end of Dragonfly Falling he is ironically described by Stenwold as "more imperial than the Empire" (p. 622), a statement which might not be too far from the truth.
Opposite to Thalric in almost every way, Colonel-Auxillian Drephos is an equally interesting character. Similar in many ways to Daurenja from KJ Parker's Engineer Trilogy, Drephos is introduced in Dragonfly Falling as a halfbreed artificer working for the Empire, yet remaining distinctly separate from its values. While Thalric is extremely self-conscious, Drephos doesn't feel the need to continuously justify his every action with a paragraph of pros and cons. Radically ambivalent, he couldn't really care how many people the Empire annihilates so long as his war-machines are doing their job. Racially and personally, he is abhorred by almost everyone, though unlike other halfbreeds he turns this to his advantage, dedicating his life to his work instead of worrying what others are saying behind his back. Unfortunately, this also means he has completely lost touch with any humanity he may have once had, standing on a pedestal, apart from the rest of the world:
Perhaps one day they will have to make me General Auxillian, and then perhaps what? Emperor Auxillian. (p. 243)
Drephos does not hide ambition and is by no means modest when describing his abilities. Unlike so many other halfbreeds, he is not only segregated, but also willing to be segregated. He believes that the racial divide is so deeply ingrained in Wasp society that even if he were at the very top of the hierarchy, the embodiment of the Empire itself, he would still be an Auxillian, a secondary component, an outsider. On the one hand, Drephos provides a comforting image of success outside the borders of mainstream society. On the other hand, he is a complete monster.
Aside from this, if you're concerned with plausibility of plot or characterisation, you should probably leave Dragonfly Falling on the shelf. Fight scenes are fairly regular and if the heroes aren't swashbuckling with angry soldiers, they're escaping impossible situations using nothing more than their wits, extravagant flying machines, and the sympathies of the author. Sometimes you just want them to calm their passions for a minute or two and consider why (or even how) they're actually doing half of the things they're doing. Even when they land themselves in a tight squeeze, they are rescued time again by mysterious plot devices, lampshade hangings and, as some might call them, cop outs. A professional assassin for example, suddenly decides to turn over a new leaf, leading them to inexplicably pass up an opportunity to kill Stenwold. An unfortunate twist of fate when you've spent half the novel secretly hoping he'll just drop dead.
Ultimately the direction of the series is unclear. There is no obvious destination lying in wait at the end of Stenwold's quest, just a myriad of possible outcomes that continuously shift and multiply as the story progresses. At times it is uncertain whether to sympathise with individuals or condemn them for their political standpoints. Sometimes the only option is to do both, leaving the reader largely responsible for deciding where the real evil lies in the story. One particular passage that illuminates this is spoken by Aagen, a Wasp and a servant to the Empire, in the first book:
Well, next time you shed my kinden's blood, think on this: we are but men, no more than other men, and we strive and feel joy and fail as men have always done. We live in the darkness that is the birthright of us all [...] only sometimes... sometimes there comes the sun. (Empire in Black and Gold, p. 491)
The Wasp Empire, throughout the course of the books, is undoubtedly a destructive force designed to consume and assimilate. The individuals that make it, though, are people in their own right, as with any other individual outside the Empire. Whether or not this is an accurate reflection of imperialism, it's certainly a comforting concept. Raising questions it never fully answers, the series leaves plenty of room for personal ideals and speculation, as well as groundwork for sequels. "Sunny-side-up" might be an accurate way to describe Dragonfly Falling: not mindless, but something you can enjoy without completely losing faith in humanity.
Peter Whitfield is a student living in the North-East of England.