Empire in Black and Gold was published by Pan Macmillan in July of this year, and kicked off the Shadows of the Apt series. Today we have a chat with its author, Adrian Tchaikovsky, to tell you all you need to know about him and a new Fantasy series coming from a publisher who has a a bit of a reputation of being on the ground floor when it comes to names we will all later know.
Time to talk bugs, empires, epics and ask the one question that matters with Adrian!
First, just for clarification for the readers; can you explain the ‘kinden’ concept as it applies in Empire in Black and Gold?
The kinden were originally tribes of people trying to survive in a world plagued by monster insects. They had an ability to reach a kind of spiritual detente with their predators, and each tribe sheltered beneath the carapace of a different type of insect (and/or arachnid etc).
A few millenia on and those tribes have become the kinden, grown civilised, become the masters and not the servants, and become physically and culturally diverse in the manner of their totems. These days they’re city-states and nations and empires, but at the heart of it they’re still the insect tribes.
The idea of personifying various races as insect kindred at first would present an idea of diversity. Afterall, the number of different insects is staggering when considering their representation of our own world’s population of living organisms.
That said, in many ways it goes back to the Tolkien branding of not only certain characteristic, but identity to a race — Beetles are sturdy, have a mind for industry; other races cannot fathom such yet live in the same environment etc, etc, I was wondering if the initial idea was to use that artificial basis to expand on certain individuals like Cheerwell and if you have found that the premise of that is as explorative as it is a bit confining. In short are you using an artificial model to present a real downfall?
It is diversity, and in order for the kinden to be diverse, there have to be ostensible differences between them. Every race has its stereotype, the things that they’re supposed to be good or bad at, but the books are full of individuals who go against the expectations of others.
There’s nothing confining in the kinden model — because once I’ve set up a city or a race as being “like that”, it allows me to play devil’s advocate and present examples who are “like this” — like Tolkien suddenly throwing us an avaricious elf or an orc that liked poetry. Being a particular kinden is like growing up in a particular region or city, where certain trades are practised, certain opinions are held. Oh, and sometimes being able to fly.
In the concept phase who were the first inhabitants of your world and why?
The Lowlander kinden that the first book focuses on kind of sprung fully formed into life, together with all their stresses and prejudices, and with the Wasps waiting outside as their major antagonist. I don’t think I could have started with just one. As individuals go, though, Stenwold Maker has been rattling around in the world of the kinden for well over ten years, complete and named and ranting about the Wasp Empire. He’s the building block that the plot starts from.
From where did the idea that this world would have steam punk elements derive from?
The steam punk went in very early on, just after the insects. In fact, it was such a long time ago that I don’t think I’d even come across the term for the sort of techno-Victoriana that I was thinking of. It was a natural evolution of the way the kinden were developing: the divisions between the magical and the material.
Then, of course, insects are industrious, some of them proverbially so, and it made sense that they would have developed some manner of technology. Think of ants, all madly busy, all going in all directions as fast as they can, organisation and chaos all at the same time, then think of steam punk-style tech, all those bells and whistles, spinning wheels and pistons and the whole unnecessary energy of it. It just feels like the sort of stuff that insects would come up with.
We enter Empire in Black and Gold in a time where war looms. Is there a historical model for your war?
There was a historical model for the war, when I was originally putting the plot together, that model being a rough Ancient Greek kind of setting, with the Wasps as the Macedonians. Now, looking back over what I’ve created, there appear to be several, all mixed up.
I like to play with historical echoes, when I write, and then my subconscious appears to insert a certain amount of parallel without me actually planning it. Suffice to say that the end result draws liberally from military roots as diverse as classical, Napoleonic and mid-20th century
To be completely honest, the first portions of Empire in Black and Gold was rough for me as I had this rather foreboding feeling of “gods he’s gathering people for a quest that has now crossed generations” and was quite pleased to find that though you establish a world of numerous races and peoples you very much keep the action in Urban settings and immediate. You very keen on cutting down the physical journey and mapping and I was wondering if this was intentional on your part for any particular reasons?
Well, there’s that old criticism of Lord of the Rings, about how it’s basically about people walking… Firstly, of course, in the world of the kinden there are ways of getting places fast: they have rail travel, they have flying machines, hell, they can flat-out fly, in some cases. There’s no excuse for taking nineteen chapters to travel a quarter of the map. Beyond that, though, it was just a fantasy cliché I wanted to dodge. I didn’t want to spend all the book just getting there.
Were they any other clichés that your were consciously trying to dodge, and were there any that seemed unavoidable or even enjoyable that you ended up employing?
I wanted to avoid the traditional Prince Valiant sort of MGM mediaeval landscape — You can certainly do a great deal with the knights and kingdoms game when you put the requisite thought into it (George R.R. Martin for example) but a lot of the fantasy that I’m trying to steer clear of seems to have a kind of cookie-cutter approach that just slaps on the same old faux-Arthurian wallpaper no matter what.
I’ve read that you enjoy Harrison, Gentle and Mieville among others. I was wondering if you by chance have read Leena Krohn’s Tainaron? I guess it’s a question based on the superficial insect element but there are some intriguing elements toyed and tugged at in it — beyond that what do you enjoy about those three writers and are the works you enjoy by them pre or post this series and if the former what did you draw from and if the latter what were works that really influenced ‘you’ the writer in general?
I’ve not come across Krohn, but I’m all for superficial insect elements (cockroachium springs to mind). I may have to look her out, if I get a book-sized space in my reading schedule. Harrison, Gentle and Mieville are innovators. What they’ve written is something that turns the genre on its head, whilst still remaining extremely readable.
I was a big fan of all of them before I began writing the proper draft of Empire, and Wolfe and Moorcock as well. I think the most important thing that all of them taught me is that fantasy isn’t the narrow elves-and-dragons genre that its detractors make it out to be. It’s a swiss-army-knife genre. You can do all sorts with it.
Was there any dissatisfaction of Fantasy prior to them (Harrison, Gentle, Mieville etc) by you or was it more of a case of finding something new? In either case what did you admire prior to those reads as for me I think there is a rather clear foundation of traditional fantasy in regards to Empire in Black and Gold.
No, no, I’ve always read fantasy, and I came to fantasy via Tolkien and all the usual, and enjoyed them. When I was young I read Dianne Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin, both of whom I rate as excellent writers.
Traditional fantasy, its structure, its memes, has a great deal to offer, if only your offering isn’t just like the last one. The best fantasy writers out there are interesting because they’re doing something new with those building blocks, or because they’re intentionally kicking them over to see what happens.
In Empire in Black and Gold is the Collegium a symbol of progress or unified stagnation? Would the destruction of it perhaps served a better purpose for both parties?
Heresy! Destroy Collegium? What sort of Wasp-sympathiser are you? Again, the answer to the question is Yes. Collegium is enlightened, by our standards. The Beetle-kinden are trying, at least, to better the lot of mankind, but then again the city is run by a lot of lazy, greedy Beetles who are rich and comfortable now, and wouldn’t want things changing any time soon.
Actually I always found myself on that side (Wasps), — I was one of those people that thought damn — Mark Hamil is just destroying progress and order that is the Empire! I’m interested in why you think it is the ‘wrong’ side?
Well, we’d probably have to go a hundred years into the kinden’s future, and if there’s a black and gold flag flying over Collegium then I’d bet the histories would say that they were the right side, after all. To me, the Wasps’ worst sin is their attempted destruction of diversity.
Everywhere they raise their banner they impose their way of life, and whatever came before them gets trodden underfoot — which is pretty much what all empires do. It’s the two poles of insect nature, if you like: the staggering variety between species opposed to the crushing uniformity of the hive.
That’s interesting. I rather find that historically Empires even if it’s not at all their purpose tend to have progressive impact as well. Your view of the Wasps is that there purpose is completely without merit?
Well, I suppose the only way to know that is to see what the world would look like a century or so after the Wasps win. Maybe in a later book…
As mentioned above there is a definite steampunk backdrop ad mixture of reason/science and magic, but a past era is referred to as The Age of Lore. Does the author see progress or regression from the Age of Lore?
In the same way that the Wasps aren’t de facto ‘bad’, the old magics of the Age of Lore have their pros and cons. There were evils back then, of ignorance and oppression, and the modern age of artifice has sidelined them and brought in new evils of its own. Perhaps it’s best to say that the more things chance, the more some things stay the same, human nature being one of them.
An interesting element, or lack of, is that in your setting thus far with the presence of empires, numerous races, and people, there is no discussion or reference to any form of theocracy or religious element. Yet not only do they have myths but even species that are ‘legendary’ to them. Can you speak on that?
Well, the insect-kinden simply don’t have what we’d see as religion. Some of the kinden have a mystical tradition, but from their point of view it’s a practical, hands-on business, because they strongly believe that magic works.
There are no insect gods, but I don’t think that you need either gods or religions in order to have myths of legends. Those kind of stories fulfill a lot of useful purposes to a developing culture, teaching ways to behave, recording history in oral tradition, cautionary tales, the memory of long-dead heroes. And of course, all those myths started somewhere.
My favorite character was Thalric. In many ways the story was his and not Stenwold’s for me, as the emotional journey seemed to be with that character, and he was necessary to give face to empire. Would it be true to say he was used to show that though they are Wasps that the empire is individual and this not a nameless mob — that there are personal motivations within the Hive and Tharlic is only one of them?
I think Thalric was my favourite character to write for, and not because he’s a villain so much as because he isn’t. Yes, one purpose of Thalric is to show that there’s nothing innately Evil about the Empire. He’s a decent, honest patriot, that’s all. Just a shame he’s on the wrong side. Contrast him with Tisamon, a murderer and mercenary with a killing temper. Who would you rather put your faith in?
But yes, it’s very important to me that the “bad guys” are not faceless storm troopers, there to be menacing and then to die in short order, and Thalric, the only Wasp in book 1 whose head you spend any time inside, is one example of that. There will be others.
What character did you find grow a bit in your story, perhaps in an unplanned way? I thought that a certain half-breed not only went in interesting directions but he altered perception even in the view of the most liberal of minds — is there a character that especially grew out of the mold and path you set them out on?
Ah well, if you liked him, you’ll love what happens in book 2… It’s something some writers say, and a lot of people assume is just being presumptuous, but it’s true. Characters do things the writer doesn’t expect and can’t control.
It’s a function of their being consistent that on occasion they just wouldn’t do what the plot demands, and then you have to work round them, like they’re picky Hollywood stars. In this case, Totho is a good example of a character who ends up taking his own destiny and running with it, but it’s worth keeping an eye on Thalric, too.
Will the next installment, Dragonfly Falling, be a direct continuation and are we dealing with a series — as with the first book we aren’t quite able to tell — that will introduce new central characters or are we dealing with a ‘continuing adventures of’ and who they may in fact run into?
All the main characters (and some surprise minor ones) have their roles to play in book two. The plot will pick up pretty much where Empire left off. However each book in the series will expand the world a little more, and bring in new characters who have their own work to do. There is an enormous amount of the world, its history and its inhabitants, that book one hasn’t even hinted at.
Are there people who aren’t under an insect tribes in your setting? Or is your story predicated that all evolved in this way?
Adrian Tchaikovsky — Strictly FOIP (Find Out In Print)