EBG, Chapter Four

Two warnings: 1. This post may contain spoilers. 2. This post may contain images of insects. Caveat lector!


In this chapter, we check in with all four of the Majestic Felbling duelling team. Salma sends a letter and visits Tynisa. Che tries to meditate. Stenwold has a proposition for Totho.

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A note on terminology in Shadows of the Apt

I love fantasy, but very few series make it easy to get into their thousands-of-pages bulk. Today I had a realisation about one reason why Shadows of the Apt is so accessible.

I am currently reading Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen Donaldson, the first book in the Thomas Covenant series. Here is a paragraph from Thomas’ first meeting with Lena, a mere 34 pages into the book and 10 pages after he leaves the normal world for the fantasy Land:

“I am Lena […] daughter of Atiaran. My father is Trell, Gravelingas of the rhadhamaerl. Our home is in Mithil Stonedown. Have you been to our Stonedown?”

Let me tell you, my spellcheck does NOT like that extract. All but two nouns (Lena and home) have got red lines under them, and that was pretty much how I felt when reading it. I don’t know or care what these words mean! And when I saw that the next page was fully half infodumpy descriptions of geography (“East of the hills are the Plains of Ra […] That is the home of the wild free horses, the Ranyhyn, and their tenders the Ramen” and suchlike) I nearly gave up on the book completely.

I also realised: Tchaikovsky’s fantasy novels, among other great things, never succumb to this kind of in-bulk unique-fantasy-terminology infodumping.

What are some of the things that made this bit of Lord Foul’s Bane so egregious to me, but that don’t happen in the first few chapters of Empire in Black and Gold?

  • Totally made up words. Repurposing or altering existing words in ways at least partially graspable the first time they’re encountered (Apt, kinden, Lowlands): no problem, doesn’t break my flow of reading. New words dropped thick and fast (rhadhamaerl? really?): makes me want to die.
  • Getting the full proper-noun character byline without context. I don’t care about Lena’s mother’s name, her father’s name, her father’s position, or where she lives. I barely care about Lena; I’ve only just met her. I can’t find a single example of this from chapters 1 and 2 of Empire; we learn something about characters when we meet them, sure, but we’re drip-fed the information that places them in the world, giving the world a chance to come into view around them.
  • Geography and history without character slant. I like learning about this stuff in fantasy worlds, but it needs to be done with a little bit of deftness and political/relational meaning. Thomas says to Lena, “I don’t know anything,” and she goes into full description of geographical features – “There is the Mithil River,” etc, etc – that doesn’t tell us anything about her character and how it affects her interpretation of her world – and also doesn’t really tell us anything about the world, because knowing the names of rivers that have no bearing on what happens in the next 50+ pages, and indeed do not appear again in that time, doesn’t actually count as “knowing anything”. The first few chapters of Empire convey a lot of geographical and historical information, but it’s always related to particular characters’ attempts to understand the world, or to persuade others of a narrative about it. That helps to familiarise us with names and places that will come up again in other contexts, but it also teaches us something in the meantime, about the character themselves as well as the world. And it isn’t so mind-numbingly boring.

I am still reading Lord Foul’s Bane, and I hope it’s going to reward me for sticking with it. Also, YMMV, obviously, and I know that to some extent it’s Tolkien standard-play-book stuff; I just think (and Shadows proves) that it doesn’t have to be done so much or so clunkily.

All quotes from the 1983 Richard Drew Publishing edition of Lord Foul’s Bane.

EBG, Chapter Four: Military technology corner

(This is only a segment of my Chapter Four essay, but I am still finishing that up, and I think it can stand alone.)

As, forced from wind-guns, lead itself can fly,
And pond’rous slugs cut swiftly thro’ the sky…
–Alexander Pope, The Dunciad, Book I

The more I learn about the technological world of the Shadows of the Apt books, the more I realise that its most important inventions are not imaginary, but real-world dead-ends and paths-not-taken. Totho’s ‘air battery’, introduced in this chapter, is no exception: compressed air, as a way of powering weapons, is (surprisingly to me) not at all anachronistic to the 17th century Eurasian world I see as the main historical inspiration of the series.

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EBG, Chapter Three

Two warnings: 1. This post may contain spoilers. 2. This post may contain images of insects. Caveat lector!


The heart of culture, he told himself. The wonder of the civilised world. The democratic Assembly of Collegium. (40)

In this short chapter, Stenwold makes a further attempt to warn the Collegium Assembly of the Wasp threat to the Lowlands.

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EBG, Chapter Two

Two warnings: 1. This post may contain spoilers. 2. This post may contain images of insects. Caveat lector!


Seventeen years? And what had Stenwold made of them, save to grow older and fatter, and to lose his hair? (21)

Chapter Two of Empire in Black and Gold is a bit of a bait and switch, taking a step back from the higher stakes of Chapter One. We rejoin an older Stenwold in Collegium, and meet a new cast of characters, students who are introduced to us via a series of duels he watches in the Prowess Forum. A big long essay this time, because I found the details we learn about Collegium society really meaty.

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EBG, Chapter One


Before getting started, a few words about my history with the series and the way these are going to work. I first read the series in a couple of years 2012 to 2014, including reading the last few books as soon as they came out, and haven’t reread them since. In this reread and analysis, I might read ahead a bit, but mainly I’m going to focus on the content of each chapter as I get to it. As such, whilst I might refer to events further ahead in the series, it does rather rely on me remembering them, so I suspect it will be at a minimum.

That said, I do not consider this a spoiler-free zone. Caveat lector.

I’m going to try to follow this basic structure, at least to begin with: a summary of the chapter, paying special attention to the introduction of new characters, kinden, places and polities; political analysis, which as I go along will hopefully, increasingly, tie the individual chapters into the larger politics of the series; and historical analysis, discussing parallels and references of various kinds, sometimes with a focus on specific topics (like education or food). A regular part of the historical analysis will be a military history corner, on which more below.

All of this is of course subject to change as I go along and continue to figure out what works. Suggestions on things I should talk about or adjustments in format are welcome!


‘You yourself have other means, Sten. You must go back to your college and your clever, machine-fingered people, and have them make ready. Of all of us, you were always the real hope of the future.’ (19)

The Shadows of the Apt series opens in media res, with a battle for the city of Myna, showing the threat of the expanding Wasp Empire. We meet Stenwold and a few other characters who aren’t locals, who make an escape by air as the city falls, with some of them dying on the way.

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