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.

Character introductions

Honestly, I find the transition between the first two chapters somewhat jarring. I’m not sure how it could be fixed, though even something as simple as calling Chapter One ‘Prologue’ would help. Part of the problem is just meeting four more main characters, introduced once again through their behaviour in a fight – and even though, knowing all that will happen, I love them dearly (well, perhaps bar Totho), I don’t think they’re as immediately memorable as Tisamon. Nonetheless, here’s a quick rundown of what we learn.

Cheerwell Maker (Che) is Stenwold’s niece, a Beetle-kinden girl who has lived with him for ten years (38) and who studies in Collegium. A large part of the chapter takes place in her third person subjective perspective, so what we learn about her is partially coloured by her insecurities, especially as she compares herself to her de facto sister, Tynisa.

Such a difference between us! Genuine sisters surely never had to suffer so. Che, like most Beetle-kinden, was short, somewhat plump and rounded, solid and enduring. She tried her best with fashion, but it wanted little to do with her. Her hair was currently cut short and died pale, which was how people liked it last year… (22)

Che’s defining characteristic in her own eyes is that she’s the ‘catch-up girl’ (22), by which she means she has to try harder than other people to have any hope of succeeding at anything:

She was a girl with her hair cut short and her physique cut broad. No Mantis-grace for her, no Ant-precision or Spider-tricks. She was just poor, lamentably named Cheerwell Maker, and she was no good at sports or swords or anything else. (39)

But Che is a very endearing character; she’s funny and dorky and kind, and doesn’t turn her insecurity into resentment of others. Her ‘major contribution to their duelling team’ (23) is to call it ‘The Majestic Felbling’ after ‘the flying furry animals that people across Collegium kept as pets,’ which is such a dumb embarrassing student thing to do. That the other members of the team (especially Tynisa, 24) don’t seem to care gives us a sense that they don’t merely tolerate Che or think they’re above her, and most of all that they don’t take themselves too seriously, either. She’s the one who invited Totho to join the team, and I get the sense this would have been his only chance as a half-breed to take part in the student duels. Her sense of her own inadequacies doesn’t make her a doormat, and she’s perfectly happy to argue against Tynisa fighting someone who she thinks is out to do her sister real harm. (27-8)

Che seems slightly in awe of her uncle, and feels the burden of impressing him.

More than an uncle but less than a father, and she had certainly never been in a position to monopolise his affections. He could be hard work, Stenwold Maker: he expected many things of his niece, and never quite acknowledged when she tried. Whether at scholarship, artificing or, of course, the fight… (38)

She describes him thus:

He was a big man, Uncle Stenwold. He was broad across the waist, and his belt wrestled daily with his growing paunch in a losing battle. He moved with a fat man’s heavy steps. This hid from many people that his sloping shoulders were broad, purposeful muscle moving there and not just the aimless swing of his belly. He was an active sponsor of the duelling houses now, but he had been a fighter himself years before. Che knew in her heart that he could be so again, if he ever wanted. So much of his manner towards the world was calculated to put it off its guard. (24)

In the previous chapter, far from being a fighter, Stenwold thought of himself as a man out of his depth – but now we learn that he used to be a dueller himself. Maybe Che is inclined to see others more positively than they see themselves. (More on Stenwold and how he sees himself, and wants the world to see him, in the political section below.)

Tynisa. The other member of Stenwold’s household is his Spider-kinden ward, ‘tall and slender’ and ‘fashionable’ with long, golden hair. (22-3)

Tynisa’s origins are mysterious to Stenwold’s acquaintances, but also to Che:

How in the world Stenwold had come by a Spider-kinden ward, or what strange dalliance had produced her, had always been a matter of speculation. Nobody held it against her, however. Everyone loved Tynisa. (23)

This is very much Che’s take; the sponsor of the other duelling team, Master Townsman Magnate Inigo Paldron, refers to her ‘with a sneer barely disguised within the walls of polite conversation,’ (27) so I suspect some people do in fact hold it against her.

We learn that Tynisa is confident at duelling, if potentially not as good as the reigning champion Piraeus, and that she’s also capable of Spider-kinden psychological warfare – which has a decidedly sexual, gendered edge. Though she makes an effort to appear laid-back, ‘elegantly lounging’ (25) through much of the chapter, she’s quite concerned for the welfare of her team-mates: note that ‘she seemed more worried for Salma than she had been on her own account’ (29) and that she’s the one to warn Totho of Adax’s post-bout attack (37). And that’s about all we learn, for now.

Salme Dien (Salma), the third member of the duelling team, is a newcomer to Collegium (28), an exotic and graceful Prince of the Dragonfly Commonweal:

He was beautiful, as nobody was more aware of than himself. Golden-skinned and midnight-haired, he was a foreign dignitary from a distant land who, it always seemed, had just deigned to favour them with his presence. (23)

I find his name interesting; in our world, both Salme and Salma are female given names, with Salme from the Estonian for poem and Salma an Arabic name associated with peace and safety. I don’t know if the associations with courtly and effeminate nobility are intentional, but they are fitting.

Salma is kind of a condescending arse, but he’s charming enough to make it work, handsome and always smiling. Through his comments about Totho, he’s heavily implied to be Inapt and to see mechanical work as beneath him. (34, 37) Like Tynisa, he’s reasonably confident in his duelling abilities, but interested in appearing nonchalant. Or maybe he simply is nonchalant: perhaps because of his various advantages and privileges, Salma doesn’t seem to take anything too seriously.

In that he couldn’t be more different from Totho, ‘a strong-framed, dark youth with a solid jaw and a closed, careful face that bore the stamp of mixed parentage,’ (24) a halfbreed apprentice artificer and undeniable pessimist. Whenever Totho speaks, he seems to do so ‘gloomily’, ‘darkly’, (28) ‘tiredly’ (34) or ‘glumly’ (33) – though perhaps this is unsurprising, given the racism he has to face on a daily basis. (More on which below.) He’s hypersensitive to others’ opinion of him – note his constant assessment of Kymon’s attitude – and he hungers for the approval of those who treat him with kindness, whether Stenwold, Che or the rest of the duelling team. (35, 37)

Che’s opinion of Totho is that ‘he was as much of a catch-up as she was,’ (23) although given that he was the one who helped her with equations, he’s clearly academically brighter than her. This is far from the last time that someone underestimates Totho. Apparently, he’s not so great at swordplay; though they don’t say so in front of him, the moment he leaves to fight his match, Tynisa and Salma have this somewhat condescending exchange:

‘He’s going to take a beating, no two ways.’
‘Oh surely, agreed Tynisa.
‘Can’t you two have a little faith?’ Che asked them.
Salma spread the fingers of his good hand in a lazy gesture. ‘Dear one, I’m fond of the little halfway and I’m sure he does his…’ Another vague gesture. ‘His tinkering like a master, but he’s not so good at this.’ (34)

We get a chance to judge for ourselves what kind of swordsman he is, when we switch to Totho’s POV for his fight with Adax, an Ant. It’s probably the most interesting bout in the chapter, whatever Kymon thinks. (36) Totho quickly decides that his only advantage over the Ant is being an outsider who can ‘outthink him’. (35) In fact, whilst he doesn’t quite manage this, he does prove his indefatigable determination as he manages to cling on for much of the bout without being hit – staying a step ahead, ‘holding, holding’ and relying on his stamina – before reacting instinctively to break Adax’s nose. (36) His rare grins at having drawn a stalemate with a bully who hates him based solely on his parentage are my highlights of the chapter. Stubborn commitment, combined with his understandable insecurity, will continue to be the keynotes of his character going forwards, and I look forward to seeing how his behaviour evolves over the book.

Political analysis

There are two levels of politics I want to talk about in this chapter: the higher political plot, and the socio-political workings of Collegium.

The advancements of the first are quite simple: we learn that Stenwold has continued to warn the Lowlands of the Wasp threat, such that ‘[f]rom artificer and idealist he had become politician and spymaster.’ In the years between chapters, he has established ‘cells of agents […] across the Lowlands,’ at least some of whom are recruited ‘from among the College students.’ (21) Though we only get hints at how this information network functions (Flies are used as messengers, and there’s also some element of counterespionage) we do hear the name of another figure involved – Scuto, who is based somewhere outside Collegium – and that Stenwold’s patronage of the duelling court is one element of his training and recruitment process. (21-2)

His open political activity has apparently been less effective.

He had tried to spread the word of invasion to a people who did not want to hear. […H]e had fought with words against the conservative nature of his people, who just wanted to be left to their commerce and their provincial squabbles. He had stood before the Assembly of Collegium and made speeches and arguments and pleas of warning until they had begun to stay away whenever his name was listed as a speaker. (21)

A nice hint at one of the relative disadvantages of a city democracy against the single-mindedness of a centralised military system. And in the mean time, while Stenwold has been turning into an ignored expert/Cassandra, the Wasp Empire have been advancing their world-empire agenda:

Instead of westwards, their armies had struck elsewhere: undertaking a brutal war of conquest against their northern neighbours. Oh, there had been merchants and travellers, and even the occasional diplomat sent by the Black and Gold, but no armies. […]
It would come masked. There would not be armies at first. The Wasps would come with smiles and open hands, promising peace and prosperity, but Stenwold’s spies had told him of the march of thousands, the sharpening of swords. […] He knew the Empire had not been idle. It had been keeping its blade good and sharp these past seventeen years. (20-1)

Stenwold sees the Wasps as duplicitous, preferring a soft takeover but always ready for a hard and bloody one. A fun detail is the mention of ‘open hands’: usually a sign of peace, for the Wasps this is of course a way to exercise their Art-given stinging attack.

On a character level, Master Maker worries that he has become too complacent and wasted his chance to prepare the city: ‘He had settled back comfortably in his home city, made himself influential […] He had since become the College Master indeed.’ (21) This ties nicely into my second political theme, namely the ambivalences of Collegium society. Having learned a bit about the cosmopolitanism of Stenwold’s city, and heard mention of its democratic Assembly, this chapter does a nice job of illuminating some of its elements of social division, inequality, and exclusion. Tchaikovsky himself points this up in an excellent blog post:

The Beetle-kinden are arguably the most enlightened kinden by our standards – after all they have humanitarianism, democracy, scholarships for the poor – surely they’re the touchstone for virtue? But in the interactions between the Collegium masters and magnates, and much more so when you get to the grime of Helleron, it’s easy to see that the Beetle-kinden have a far from perfect society – their elected Assembly is crammed with merchants and the idle rich, and haven’t you noticed, in a world which is by no means male-dominated, how many of the leading Beetles seem to be men…

Stenwold’s POV tells us quite a bit about money, power and class in Collegium. In his opposite number in the duelling court (Inigo Paldron, who we’re clearly meant to judge both unpleasant and ridiculous), we get a sense of the mercenary nature of some of the city’s Assembly.

This was a good example of the way the affluent classes of Collegium were heading, he reflected sadly: a squat man with a receding hairline who was clad in robes of blue, red and gold woven from imported spider silk. There were rings cluttering his hands and a jewelled silver gorget beneath the third of his chins, to let the world know that here was a man interested in things martial. Each item of clothing and jewellery was conspicuously expensive, yet the overall picture was one of vulgarity. (25)

It’s easy to find Paldron’s ostentatious display of wealth distasteful; Stenwold clearly does. Unlike the artificer, who tries to appear unassuming and nonthreatening (remember Che’s observation, 24), Paldron uses his appearance to make more of himself, even wearing armour as a fashion accessory. He also tries to buy success in the duelling court by paying Piraeus, the old champion, to fight on his sponsored team:

It was, Stenwold reflected, just another problem with the great and good of Collegium today. Give them a famine, a war, a poverty-stricken district or a child shorn of parents and they would debate the symbolism and the philosophy of intervention. Give them some competition or empty trophy and they would break every rule to parade their victories publicly through the town. (27)

Despite the moralising edge, I think Stenwold’s judgement is less of wealth as such than it is of Paldron as parvenu. (After all, you don’t get a foreign prince on your own duelling team by accident.) There’s an interesting exchange over titling that is worth quoting at length:

‘Kymon,’ Stenwold acknowledged. The Ant-kinden raised his hand to his mouth, a soundless cough that perhaps hid a small smile.

‘My apologies. Master Gownsman and Armsman Kymon of Kes,’ Stenwold continued formally, and the Ant granted him a fraction of a bow.

‘Master Gownsman Stenwold Maker,’ he replied. ‘The Collegium Society of Martial Prowess recognises your sponsored house and invites you to name your charges.’


Stenwold watched as another Beetle came forward. […]
‘Master Gownsman and Armsman Kymon of Kes,’ said the newcomer with a flourish.

‘Master Townsman Inigo Paldron,’ Kymon acknowledged. Master Paldron pursed his lips and made an urgent little noise. Kymon sighed.

‘Master Townsman Magnate Inigo Palsdron,’ he corrected. ‘Forgive me. The new titling is but a tenday old.’

‘I do think that, when the Assembly of the Learned spends more time debating modes of address than civic planning, something has gone seriously wrong with the world,’ Stenwold grumbled, not quite joking. ‘Just plain “Master” was always good enough for me.’

Master Townsman Magnate Paldron’s expression showed that, in titles as in other ornament, he was unlikely ever to have more than he was happy with. (24-6)

There’s quite a lot here to unpick. First, as Kymon makes sure to point out, Paldron has only just been made a Magnate. He’s a man on the up-and-up, still making his money. Yet more than that, he’s unable to pass socially because of his obviously nouveau riche concern with manners and status. He’s very careful to address Kymon correctly, and cannot let it pass when he is not given his full title in return. But you know who isn’t hung up on titles? Stenwold Maker, who observes that ‘Just plain “Master” was always good enough for me.’ There’s a little irony in arguing that titles don’t matter whilst simultaneously referring to their shared differentiating status: they’re both Masters, and that matters, even if being a Magnate or otherwise should apparently be by-the-by. This is an egalitarianism, such as it is, that exists between elites.

Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of nineteenth-century liberalism: an ideology that argued for the inherent equality of free individuals, whilst placing implicit limits on who counted as a free individual. Much has been written on these half-concealed hierarchies of liberalism, but one neat summary is in Judson’s essay on the Austrian case:

The universal concept of the reasonable individual provided a foundation for all kinds of liberal political theory […] Behind its optimistic façade, however, nineteenth-century liberalism implicitly harboured the growing fear that there exist individuals in all nations who, on whatever grounds, do not make reason the guide of their existence. And if we move from their universalist rhetoric to examine specific liberal attitudes towards citizenship, we find that these invisible, unreasoning beings actually constitute a majority of the world’s inhabitants. […]

Liberals claimed that the independence of mind so necessary to citizenship was reflected in the degree to which an individual had achieved financial independence. […] In barring non-tax-paying residents from access to the decision-making process liberals not only imposed an implicit hierarchy on humanity, they also connected the trait of reasonableness to income level. […] “Degree of education” [w]as a recognised alternative sign of reasonableness to property ownership. […]

As long as education offered an alternate route to reasonableness, it would technically be possible for even the poorest worker or the most ignorant Slav to gain full rights of citizenship. […] Noting that “People are not free in one blow, they become free, they develop and educate themselves to freedom,” Berger [an Austrian student liberal in 1848] argued against giving the masses complete liberty and citizenship until they had received enough education to make use of it. [1]

I don’t wish to stretch the comparison with the universe of the books too far; we haven’t yet learned about citizenship and voting rights in Collegium. Nonetheless, the two main categories of people sitting in the Assembly – the rich, and those who teach at the College – reflect these nineteenth-century citizenship requirements of education and/or property.

For the moment, however, I’m even more interested in Stenwold’s lack of concern for Kymon’s title. I don’t think this is a case of disrespect; Kymon doesn’t seem to feel slighted, and given the way the Beetle later thinks about the Ant (30), I’d say the two are on good terms. Rather, comfort with his position as (at least) the Ant’s equal allows Stenwold to address Kymon on a comfortable first-name basis. Stenwold’s disinterest in formality is its own kind of status symbol, like unselfconsciously bad table manners for nobles: it’s the middle classes who have to learn how to do things properly, perhaps from an etiquette guide, and not old money. Note that he’s perfectly aware of Kymon’s proper title, and can deliver it with an eye roll when required. Kymon himself is also better at playing the game of upper-class manners than Paldron; his ‘soundless cough’ and hidden smile reassure Stenwold that he doesn’t mind too much what he’s called, but you know, one has to be seen to do things properly. Compare that to Paldron’s ‘urgent little noise’, which makes it far too evident that what he’s called does matter to him, and therefore marks his social status as insecure.

Further, as with his internal observation about buying Piraeus’ services, there’s a moralising edge to Stenwold’s judgement on titles: he believes Assembly members should be thinking about higher things. Of course, being constantly concerned about city planning (rather than mere survival – or, for example, trying hopelessly to ensure the respect of your colleagues) is also a luxury. This is the civic-minded equivalent of judging others for not buying organic food.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, because Stenwold isn’t entirely without self-awareness about his own comfortable life:

I should use a mirror more often, Stenwold thought wryly. He might himself own only to the white robes of a College Master, but his waist was approaching the dimensions of this merchant lord’s… (25)

Stenwold knows on some level that his own gestures towards minimalism are no less of a display than Paldron’s vulgar maximalism; they both have the money to eat well, and his white robes, representing as they do his position in the College, are a status symbol in and of themselves. He would probably argue that he tries to do something more worthwhile than Paldron with his comfortable life, and perhaps that as a Master Gownsman, he has earned his status in Collegium in a more justifiable way than sheer wealth. I don’t entirely disagree with him, but town-versus-gown is a different kind of elitism, not its absence.

One last note on class: whilst power from wealth or education each have a theoretically meritocratic element, and indeed there is evidently a degree of social mobility in Collegium, in both cases inheritance matters. Totho, the least privileged character we meet in this chapter, awkwardly makes this explicit:

‘He’s only in the team because of his uncle,’ declared Totho before he could stop himself, and then he grimaced at the look of hurt that Che tried desperately to hide.

Because of his uncle, she was thinking. Well, that’s a broad net these days. (38)

There are advantages bestowed on the descendants of the elite. The Prowess Forum allows the exchange of skill for fame and glory, yes, but participation in the duelling society – something of a status marker, given the desirability of sponsoring a team – is about who you know, not ability. Note that this is true for Totho, though in his case it’s about luck, as well as for Che, who gets her position through nepotism. The difference is that Totho has less to be defensive about.

Alongside and intertwined with class, the chapter touches on race and gender as meaningful power dynamics in an enlightened society. The Lowlands prejudice against halfbreeds like Totho is severe:

It was said, with good reason, that the people of the Ant loved nothing more than fighting their own kind, their brothers from behind different city walls. In truth, there was one thing they took even more joy in, and that was punishing halfbreeds. Totho attended the Great College on an orphan scholarship and there was Ant-kinden and Beetle-kinden blended in his ancestry. Even on Collegium’s cosmopolitan streets, a halfbreed had a hard life. In the harsher world outside it meant exile, slavery or, in the last resort, law-breaking. (34)

Indeed, Adax calls Totho ‘slave’ during their fight (36); Ants bring their prejudices with them to the Beetle city. Yet Totho believes that his background is a mark against him for Beetles, too, hoping that Stenwold can ‘see him in a favourable light, perhaps look past the accident of his birth.’ (35)

Though it’s not an exact analogue (at least from the Beetle point-of-view, neither Spider nor Mantis-kinden are inherently inferior), there’s something to be said about Tynisa and Totho as alternative takes on racial passing, something with a particularly rich history in America. Tynisa, who as far as nearly everyone knows is Spider-kinden, is socially accepted, whereas Totho belongs nowhere. Obviously, there are multiple elements at play: presumably appearance alone makes it harder for Totho to pass, but there’s also the fact that no one expects a halfbreed Mantis-Spider-kinden, because of their intense mutual hatred, and that Tynisa’s privileged social position as Stenwold’s ward protects her from a great deal of racism (presumably people must wonder if she’s not a Spider-Beetle hybrid). In terms of passing, the way identities inflect each other can give someone the benefit of the doubt. [2]

Further interactions between money and race are highlighted by a pair of actions from Paldron. Despite the ancient and implacable race hatred between Mantis and Spider (which Everyone Knows Is True, though we’re already seeing a fair amount of holes in it), his ‘mere money’ gets Piraeus and Seladoris to fight on the same team. (27) On the other hand, what bribery presumably couldn’t achieve, the combined power of racism and elitism can when Adax isn’t disqualified for his illegitimate attack on Totho:

had the victim been anyone but a lowly halfbreed, perhaps it would have even led to the whole team being disqualified. Inigo Paldron was already bustling up to make his unctuous apologies, however, and Totho knew it would not go any further. Kymon shot him a look, though, as he went to rejoin his colleagues, and it had a certain recognition in it. Adax was from the city of Tark, Totho reflected, and Kymon himself from the island city of Kes, and so perhaps the old man had not minded seeing a traditional enemy brought low. (37)

I mean… given that they’re not duelling at the time, it’s not just against the rules, it’s attempted assault with a weapon. But from Totho’s point of view, any sympathy from Kymon must just be about a contradictory form of racism.

Once again, these differential attitudes to race are a realistic part of our own world’s Enlightenment history, which I think Collegium is meant to reflect. As Outram puts it,

Enlightenment, for all its universalist claims, had much difficulty in finding a place for social groups – not just women, but also lower social classes and other races – which previous historical periods had equally defined as outside the central human community. [3]

Universalism effects its own exclusions, all the while masking them in a way that makes them difficult to talk about.

Finally, gender. So far, sexism isn’t immediately a major element of the Shadows of the Apt universe. Chapter One showed male and female Ant soldiers, and this chapter demonstrates that female spies, students and duellists exist without comment. Yet there is a definite male bias to Collegium nonetheless: the entire other duelling team, both sponsors, and the Master Armsman are male, and for that matter, so is much of the language of politics (Master, Townsman, Gownsman). A further sign that power in the Lowlands is implicitly masculine and only incidentally female becomes apparent when Che thinks about Spider society.

In the cities of the Spider-kinden it was the women who pulled the strings and made the laws, and also the women who had the deadliest name in private duel… (28)

This is a somewhat quibbling point, perhaps, but the phrasing ‘it was the women who…’ suggests that female-dominated Spider cities are being contrasted not to egalitarian Beetle society, but to an implicitly (if rather benignly) patriarchal norm. For women to pull the strings, make the laws, and win the duels is unusual enough to Che to be worth acknowledging.

These subtle political dynamics – of gender, class, and kinden, as well as others I’ve not discussed, like Aptitude – are not at all casual; they’re built up with consistency and complexity in the series, and they matter to the characters we follow, as well as to many of the plots. I’m sure I’ll have many more opportunities to opine on the various ambivalences of emancipatory ideologies in the cultures of the books.

Historical analysis

The College duelling society might seem an odd idea, an attempt to insert the excitement of knightly tournaments into a university setting, but such an effort has some solid historical precedent in the Central European Mensur. [4] In this final section, I’ll talk about a bit about that inspiration, as well as the history of duelling and fencing more generally.

The duels between the Majestic Felbling and Golden Shell are not intended to result in serious injury, or fought as a result of issued challenges: they are a kind of sport. (38) I think it’s implied, however, that Collegium’s present day fencing has evolved from an older tradition of trial by combat, which is often seen as one of the historical roots of the European duel. [5] This would explain why the Prowess Forum is also known as the ‘duelling court’ (22). Trial by battle in history depends on the religious associations of the ordeal; the winner does not win because they are better at fighting, but because they have God/Providence on their side. In the markedly non-religious world of the books, I think we get a sense of what might have acted as a symbolic guarantor of the trial by combat instead of a god in the ‘walls that, by ancient tradition, each had an open door’ (29; a form of justice legitimated by its openness to the public?), and perhaps in the ritual salute of the book before a bout of fencing begins – though this might also be a more recent excrescence. (30-1)

I’m not going to talk so much about the general extra-legal duel fought to defend one’s honour; though this has a rich and fascinating history in many countries, the tournament structure and publicly condoned nature of the Collegium duels make many elements of this comparison (the insult, the challenges, seconds, the need to agree weapons, rules and a time and place to fight) irrelevant. To me the duels in this chapter seem to be halfway between these affairs of honour and contemporary sport fencing, bearing some elements of each.

Enter the Mensur, ‘an exercise in aggression checked by accepted rules.’ [6] By the time of unification, many German aristocratic or officer duels were fought with pistols, but students held fast to the duel with swords.  Other differences between academic and non-academic duelling cultures were also increasingly evident. In particular, rather than as a reaction to perceived social affronts, the majority of student duels were Bestimmungsmensur, duels by arrangement. [7]

The Mensur was (and is) a tradition of various German Studentenverbindungen:

the Landsmannschaften, the oldest; the Burschenschaften, the least conservative; and the Corpsstudenten, the most elite. Each organization had subdivisions called corporations, and a given university might sponsor any number of these. Other groups permitting extra-curricular dueling existed […]; however, the aforementioned trio constituted the Holy Trinity of Mensur, and of these the Corps was godhead. [8]

As described in the famous passage from Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, bouts of Mensur would be arranged between different corporations, and held before an audience of fellow students. Although technically illegal after 1883, Mensur were rarely prosecuted, in part because members of student associations who had participated in the Mensur were heavily dispersed into the upper reaches of the state after graduation. (This old boys’ network reached right to the top: Kaiser Wilhelm II was himself a Corpsstudent, and spoke favourably about fencing. If you read German, there’s an interesting article about his student life here.)

What do we learn about the style of duelling in Collegium, and how much does it resemble Mensur? Well, the duels take place in a ‘circle of bare, sandy earth, raked after every bout, contained within a square of mosaic,’ (29) and the bouts are timed, stopping when the clock runs out or one of the duellists leaves the circle. (33) Mensur bouts were also timed (apparently 15 minutes was the norm), and a circle was sometimes drawn around the combatants; retreating outside of it was looked down on as unmanly. The style of fighting, however, seems to be different. In this chapter, the duellists wear padded arming jackets and heavy leather offhand gloves, and their swords are ‘mere wood covered with a thin layer of bronze.’ (30) There’s a lot of movement in the way they fence, and there are particular fighting systems the students learn, as recorded in fencing manuals:

Salma was immediately on the offensive. He was fighting in proper Prowess style, leading with the edge of the blade, feet tracing a geometry of arcs and sudden straight advances. His free hand was up at chest height, leather gauntlet ready to deflect the Mantis’s strikes. There was nothing that was not book-perfect, from the prints in the fencing manuals, until every so often he threw in something else… (31)

As the Mensur evolved over time and became increasingly ritualised, the weapons and fighting style changed. Thrust fencing using some kind of rapier was the norm in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and where the duel was fought without a knob tipping the weapon, participants faced the attendant danger of a punctured lung. The high level of fatalities led to a phasing out of thrust fencing in favour of cut fencing, usually using a Korbschläger or Glockenschläger.



Images from Adolf Meyer, Neue Schule des kommentmäßigen akademischen Schlägerfechtens (Leipzig 1906), p.12.


Check out the goggles (Paukbrille). ‘Der Herr Paukant’ by Georg Mühlberg, c.1900.

Clothing worn by student duellists also varied, but in modern Mensur some kind of armour for the torso, neck and wrists became the norm, along with distinctive metal goggles. Twain’s describes the fencing gear he observed thus:

They were bare-headed; their eyes were protected by iron goggles which projected an inch or more, the leather straps of which bound their ears flat against their heads; their necks were wound around and around with thick wrappings which a sword could not cut through; from chin to ankle they were padded thoroughly against injury; their arms were bandaged and re-bandaged, layer upon layer, until they looked like solid black logs. These weird apparitions had been handsome youths, clad in fashionable attire, fifteen minutes before, but now they did not resemble any beings one ever sees unless in nightmares. They strode along, with their arms projecting straight out from their bodies; they did not hold them out themselves, but fellow students walked beside them and gave the needed support.

Although Twain exaggerates for comic effect, the somewhat static fencing style this clothing fits them for – standing still and hitting each other, basically – is echoed in some other nineteenth-century descriptions. Mensur bouts arguably neglected footwork and defence in favour of attacks aimed at the face, which might deliver sought-after duelling scars. All that being said, I’m quite unequipped to compare the specifics of how Mensur were fought with the ‘Prowess style’ mentioned in Chapter Two, beyond ‘probably less footwork’ and ‘more aiming for scars’. There is a vast amount of information about historical fencing of various schools available online, and if your interest is piqued by Empire in Black and Gold‘s mention of fencing manuals, it might be worth going down an internet wormhole here, for example. And regardless of the details of technique, the duelling society in the book does resemble historical examples of duelling as an unofficial component of university education.

I can’t get no Satisfaktion

Practitioners [of dueling] saw it as fulfilling an auxiliary pedagogical function: as an “educational device for manly courage.” It was a martial compensation for the softening effects of book-study, of the merely intellectual life, and just as it toughened the body, it also steeled the will and showed the world that even callow scholars could be obdurate in the face of something more daunting than Greek and Latin grammar. As an antidote to the pedantry of soulless erudition, the Mensur was “a moral examination.” [9]

Just a game. A sport. True, the city was mad on sports just now, with the Games commencing in a mere tenday’s time, but this duelling was still only an idle pastime for College students. It didn’t matter whether she won or lost here. The taking part was the thing. (38)

Duelling, bound up as it is with the theme of honour, is a beloved subject for historians interested in gender and class. Indeed, the three were interdependent; it was class or rank that made someone Satisfaktionsfähigkeit, that is, capable of giving satisfaction, possessed of honour, and therefore able to take part in a duel. [10] Even with the arranged Mensur, taking part, and behaving in a suitably masculine fashion, was a matter of honour; it was not simply a game. And although Che tries to reassure herself that duelling is only a sport, there are signs that in the world of the books, too, honour and class are deeply implicated in bouts of fencing.

What makes something a duel and not simply a fight is debatable, but in the eyes of early modern and modern duellists, it owed something to its supposedly ritterlich (knightly or chivalrous) inheritance. As these associations imply, not everyone was entitled to duel, and in an odd way, duelling someone (whether in an arranged bout, or because of a perceived slight) was a mark of respect and equality. If someone beyond the social pale insulted you, you would simply box their ears, not exchange calling cards. Now, nineteenth century duels are especially interesting, because although duelling is typically associated with the nobility, in the German case I’ve discussed, the two major sites of duelling – universities and the military – were institutions where the bourgeoisie were in the ascendant, and the political rhetoric of this class was, broadly speaking, one of equality and the rule of law. Historiographical discussion has therefore often focused on the problem of how to reconcile the exclusive and aristocratic nature of duelling with its increasingly bourgeois participants. Crudely speaking, the question can be boiled down to this: did these latter-day duels represent the feudalization of the bourgeoisie, that is, their capitulation to aristocratic norms, or the embourgeoisement of previously-feudal society?

Germany is historiographically prominent in part because duels were more persistent there up to the First World War than say, England, but even more so because the German Bürgertum was already under the Sonderweg microscope. Was it in some way abnormal, or deficient, directly resulting in the Third Reich? I think the very question is stupid (to mention only a few points, European countries that remained liberal democracies until the Second World War were the exception, not the norm; and what is supposed to have happened to this weak German bourgeoisie during the Weimar Republic?), but historians of duelling like Kevin McAleer sometimes do answer in the affirmative:

the duel in Imperial Germany was not only a major impediment to the development of a strong bourgeois social identity, but it was also a significant barrier to German success in the democratic sphere. [11]

Duels led to fascism – you heard it here first. In this take on the relationship between duelling and the German bourgeoisie, he is especially at odds with the work of Ute Frevert and Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker. As with many historiographical debates, however, the question of influence between aristocracy and bourgeoisie might be six of one and half-a-dozen of the other: at a time when the European bourgeoisie were increasingly powerful and prominent, they adopted an aristocratic practice in order to increase their own social status by association. Expanding slightly the narrow circle of those deemed satisfaktionsfähig was a claim to bourgeois equality, but it was not at all a disavowal of elitism. There is no reason to equate this to ‘feudalization’, and in fact – as I discussed above – this kind of tension between universalist claims and particularist practices was stitched into the fabric of liberalism, that traditionally bourgeois political ideology.

This interpretation of a strong middle class adapting a code of honour to their own ends, perhaps with a heaping spoon of ‘invented tradition’, seems to fit Collegium, most definitely a bür­ger­lich (indeed, post-bourgeois-revolution) society. Contextualising the duelling society in this way also gives a different slant on Totho’s duel. If the practice of duelling, even when it is apparently only for sport, is linked to proving one’s honour, then when Adax angrily calls out ‘Fight me, slave!’ this is not only because he wants to inflict a beating on the halfbreed. Totho’s refusal to fight offensively – what might be extrapolated as the swordfighting equivalent of firing a duelling pistol deliberately wide – seems to Adax to be an insult to his honour; Totho is not deigning to duel him, implying that Adax is not capable of giving him satisfaction. Looking at it this way also made me rethink the Ant’s attack on Totho after the formal bout ends: on one level, sure, he’s angry that he didn’t win, but on another, to attack outside the constraints of the duel puts Totho back in his (race- and class-appropriate) place. Adax doesn’t want a rematch; he just wants to hurt and humiliate an inferior who deserves it, and who was never satisfaktionsfähig in the first place.

In fact, we get a hint at this before the fight even takes place. To quote again:

It was said, with good reason, that the people of the Ant loved nothing more than fighting their own kind, their brothers from behind different city walls. In truth, there was one thing they took even more joy in, and that was punishing halfbreeds. (34)

To fight one-on-one implies equality, at least of a limited kind. Ants don’t fight halfbreeds: they punish them, something quite different.

Page references within the text refer to the 2012 Tor edition of Empire in Black and Gold. 


[1] Pieter M. Judson, ‘Rethinking the Liberal Legacy,’ in Steven Beller (ed.), Rethinking Vienna 1900 (New York, 2012), pp.57-79; these quotations excerpted from pp.62-66.

[2] Intersectionality, amirite. There’s a huge literature on passing, and I don’t pretend to any kind of expertise, but one relevant and interesting essay is Valerie Smith, ‘Reading the Intersection of Race and Gender in Narratives of Passing,’ Diacritics 24.2-3 (1994), pp.43-57. I’m hoping there are untold multitudes of works on these themes in the fantasy genre, but I haven’t found them yet.

[3] Dorinda Outram, The Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2013), 3rd edition, pp. 94-5. Many people far cleverer than me have written about exclusion and universality; for example, see Étienne Balibar, ‘On Universalism: In Debate With Alain Badiou,’ February 2007, accessed at eipcp.net/transversal/0607/balibar/en.

[4] I can’t be bothered with italicising German words, so I’m not going to, but there will be a fair few in what follows.

[5] V. G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of the Aristocracy (Oxford, 1989), pp.33-37; though note that others see it as a less important precursor than the joust, e.g. Jennifer Low, Manhood and the Duel: Masculinity in Early Modern Drama and Culture (Basingstoke, 2003), pp.12-16.

[6] Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred (London, 1993), p.9.

[7] Lisa Fetheringill Zwicker, ‘Contradictory Fin-De Siècle Reform: German Masculinity, the Academic Honor Code, and the Movement against the Pistol Duel in Universities, 1890–1914,’ History of Education Quarterly, 54.1 (2014), pp.19-41; Ute Frevert, Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (Cambridge, 1995), Chapter 4.

[8] Kevin McAleer, Dueling: The Cult of Honour in Fin-de-Siècle Germany (Princeton, NJ, 1994), p.125. This book is overwritten and sometimes sophomoric, more on which below, but it is good on the interesting specifics of duelling codes and practices, and many of the details of the Mensur in this section are drawn from it.

[9] Ibid., pp.140-1.

[10] In addition to the works already cited, see Pieter Spierenburg, ‘Masculinity, Violence, and Honor: An Introduction,’ in Spierenburg (ed.), Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Ohio, 1998), pp.1-29; and Mika LaVaque-Manty, ‘Dueling for Equality: Masculine Honor and the Modern Politics of Dignity,’ Political Theory 34.6 (2006), pp.715-40. McAleer estimates that 5% of the German population – he does not clarify whether by this he means only the male population – was satisfaktionsfähig: McAleer, Dueling, pp.35-6.

[11] Ibid., p.208.

If you would like to discuss this chapter or any of the points I’ve raised here further, please do leave a comment!


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.

Character introductions

What a band we are. The thought passed through Stenwold’s mind as he took the stairs, bringing up the rear as always. (5)


 Tchaikovsky’s fantasy casting of Stenwold is apparently Lawrence Fishburn, which seems pretty spot on.

Stenwold Maker. The very first character we meet, Stenwold opens the series looking through a telescope, befitting his nature as artificer but even more so as observer. I actually forgot until most of the way through the chapter that it takes place over a decade before the rest of the series, but I like that we get to see a younger Stenwold here. He’s shown to be quick-thinking and analytical, compassionate but also pragmatic, and seeing things through his eyes begins to orient us to some of the less accessible characters. Stenwold is described as ‘dark of skin and receding of hair, stout and bulky, loud of tread,’ (6) and is dressed for machining rather than war. In fact, he seems at first to be a bit of a hindrance to his gang’s escape, tripping over and fumbling with his crossbow. Once they get to the airfield, however, he is able to play to his strengths, piloting an air craft he’s never seen before, killing for the first time, and rescuing his friend Tisamon from self-destruction by Wasp-kinden by sheer stubborness. We also get a sense of the source of his single-mindedness thereafter about preventing Wasp invasion of the lowlands: not only has he seen a city fall to them first-hand, but he knows they have much further-reaching plans:

That one glimpse he had caught, of the Wasps’ great map, had been a harsh education. A map of lands he had never seen, extending down to lands he knew all too well […] A map of a projected conquest that stopped only with the Wasps’ knowledge of their world.

‘Nobody will care,’ Tisamon repeated, and there was a rare wisdom in his voice. ‘What is the Lowlands, anyway? A half-dozen feuding city-states […] and perhaps a few men like yourself, trying to make sense of it all. The Wasps are a unity, we are a motley.’ (18)

I love this passage because it reminds me of Stenwold’s ability to think in terms of the big picture, and particularly to hope for unity in diversity. Already we’ve encountered his tendency to surround himself by different kinden (I think he’s the only Beetle kinden we meet in this chapter, although Myna is a Soldier Beetle city), and to make friends with people who are very different to him and often oddballs in their own right. Tisamon describes the Lowlands as a motley, but while I don’t think Stenwold would disagree, I think he sees that as a positive in itself and a potential strength. In this he is very much a product of his hometown, Collegium, as I’ll return to below.

Marius and the renegade Ants of Sarn. Marius is an Ant, leader of a squadron who almost all die with him in the escape from the city, but I think he’s interesting anyway, not least in giving us more information about Stenwold. Marius is calm and contained, leading a troop who move with ‘single purpose’ (7) and who sacrifice themselves to guard the band’s retreat. But what’s so great is that as much as he and his troop seem reserved and singular to Stenwold, they’re individualists as far as Ants go, deserters from a city they know they cannot return to. Stenwold sees their leader as trying to act, like himself, in the service of the bigger picture: ‘Marius only left because he thought this was for your people’s own good.’ (17) But upon rereading, it’s clear it’s also a choice founded in loyalty to and faith in Stenwold himself:

‘He says he regrets that things have ended this way, and he also regrets that the others, Atryssa and Nero, were not with us, but he does not regret following you from his city, and he does not regret dying in this company.’ (17)

This is the first time in the series we see people sacrifice themselves for Stenwold’s vision, but it’s far from the last. It shows the respect he inspires in soldiers, and we also get our first ‘good death,’ a fantasy trope I think the series does really well.

Tisamon. If Marius is a soldier, Tisamon is a quintessential and iconic lone warrior, full of blood-lust and ‘clinging to his grudges and his honour like a drowning man.’ (6) The Mantis-kinden are Inapt and seen by Stenwold as belonging to a bygone era, but

[t]hey were matchless, whether in single duel or a skirmish of swords, and Tisamon was a master, the deadliest fighter Stenwold had ever known. (2)

Tisamon is described as ‘tall and pale,’ (2) ‘lean’, (9) ‘the most graceful man Stenwold had ever known.’ (5) He doesn’t fight, he dances. Though he and the Beetle seem to have a long history between them, it’s clear that when he’s angry, even Stenwold finds him a bit scary. The reason he’s so upset is that he thinks they’ve been betrayed by his lover Atryssa, which is compounded because the Spider-kinden are ancient enemies of the Mantises. Tisamon is a Romantic; he’s angry and suicidal because he’s been hurt by a lover he trusted despite that ingrained history. He clearly loves Stenwold deeply, too; in spite of their slightly combative dynamic, there’s a fondness even in the way he calls him ‘fat-Beetle’, (9) and he’s deeply reliant on the artificer to navigate even basic technology. (Check out the way this fast-moving killing machine is stopped in his tracks and looks to Stenwold for help when confronted by a door handle. Moments like that are why I love this deeply ridiculous conceit of Aptitude.)

Tisamon might be all about honour and even, in the form of Weaponmaster, belong to his own special league of murder ninjas, but (unsurprisingly for a friend of Stenwold’s), he’s not totally bound by tradition. He seems pretty frustrated by the insularity of Mantis-kinden – ‘They have quarrels a thousand years old that they have yet to settle’ (17) – and yet aware that he himself is limited by their culture. We learn that he has been living in Collegium with Stenwold, but does not feel he belongs there:

‘No debate and diplomacy. No society. No kind words, ever again. […] I will stay at Helleron and I will oppose the Wasps the only way I can.’ (18-19)

Tisamon has apparently been trying to live in a way untypical for Mantis-kinden, but at the opening of the story, he gives up on that for some angsty knight-erranting.

Political analysis

There is little directly political plot happening in this chapter, but there are some interesting hints at how the insect-kinden structure their societies. Although the kinden have (apparently?) biological differences in terms of their Arts (for example, Mantises have spines on their arms, and Wasps can fly and shoot ‘stings’ from their hands), it’s clear that Tchaikovsky is interested in using them to explore ideas of culture and identity as much as ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if people had insect skillz’ (though it is pretty cool).

As mentioned, the Lowlands are a region made up of ‘a half-dozen feuding city-states’, and different cities (even of the same or related kinden, such as Collegium and Myna) are not politically integrated. Stenwold’s hope seems to be that the different cultures and polities will be able to co-operate in some way to fight the Wasp Empire, and though he isn’t explicit about the form this should take, he’s almost certainly thinking more along the lines of information sharing and broad military alliance than uniting under a single government.

Beetles are, at least to start with, largely presented to us as the ‘default’ race in the series. Although we hear that Beetles are ‘heavy-boned’ (6) and not natural fighters, we get a reasonably positive picture of them in this chapter:

Stenwold was Beetle-kinden and in the Lowlands his people were known for their industry, their artifice, even, as he liked to think, for their charity and kindly philosophy. (8)

The tiered, walled city of Myna is inhabited by ‘some offshoot of Beetle stock’ (8) (it’s later revealed that they’re Soldier Beetles), and they have their own artificers and airfield. We don’t learn anything about its form of government, though it apparently has an organised army, ‘a disciplined lot’ (5) with something of a uniform (‘black and red armour’, 3). In addition, the citizens of Myna are themselves armed and ready to fight:

Men and women, and boys and girls still too young to be here at all, they were clutching knives and swords and staves, and waiting. […] All around now, they were brandishing their swords or workman’s hammers or simple wooden clubs. (6-7)

What they are notably not brandishing are axes or farm tools, suggesting perhaps that unrepresented among them are peasants from the surrounding area who have fled inside the walls for protection. We learn that Myna certainly does have ‘tributary settlements’ of this kind (17), but not what has happened to the people living in them. Maybe the silence on this is simply a reflection of Stenwold’s bias as a city-dweller and skilled workman of sorts himself.

We’re also introduced to one more Beetle city:

‘We tried to warn your people at Helleron that the Wasps are coming, and what did they say? That nobody would invade Helleron. They claimed that the city was too useful. That Wasps needed to trade and deal in arms just like everyone else. They look upon the Empire as just another Ant city-state.’ (17)

As reflected in Stenwold’s own mindset and the company he keeps, Beetles seem to be relatively outward looking and culturally open, not afraid of contact with new peoples. In Helleron at least, they’re manufacturers and traders who see the world as interconnected and assume they can rely on self-interest, pragmatism and mutual advantage to keep things ticking along. Wars may come and go, but Beetles are successful and adaptable enough to profit off them. To me this complacency suggests a relatively stable political status quo, at least as it pertains to them; they’re not fighting in these wars themselves.

If Beetles are moderately cosmopolitan, Ants are far less so (though evidently Beetle and Ant city-states are somewhat familiar with each other and engaged in trade). They have an organised military outlook, and a culture of conformity linked in some way to their ability to communicate telepathically with each other (it’s not clear whether this leads to their insularity, results from it, or both). Even their appearance is uniform: they’re ‘universally compact’, dressed alike, and look similar enough ‘to be family’. (5, 1) Though Marius is Stenwold’s friend, the other Ants keep to themselves (‘Stenwold realized that he knew none of their names, had not even heard many of them speak,’ 12), and Stenwold finds them impassive and somewhat alien:

Ant-kinden, he would never understand them or their communal world. Or how Marius had managed to leave that world and not look back. (12)

We learn that there are multiple Ant city-states; they are seemingly somewhat hidebound, but not homogenous or politically static:

‘But Marius – Sarn isn’t like the other Ant cities any more. There have been changes. There are even some of my own kin on the council there,’ Stenwold insisted. (17)

Nonetheless, Marius and his unnamed female soldier insist that, having gone renegade, they cannot return. They are not unique amongst Ant-kinden; it is apparently common enough for there to be a tradition of Ant renegades turning mercenary in Helleron. (18) Crucially, the Ant cities might be organised and efficient, but they are also unable to accept the Wasp threat.

It’s in relation to the Mantis-kinden that we learn that some kind of revolution in the distant past (Stenwold thinks of it as the Bad Old Days, 15) led to a vast overhaul of the power structure in the Lowlands. Mantises were powerful in the past but are now technologically, socially and politically outpaced (which I guess they would be, once levers have been invented); yet ‘[e]ven though their time of greatness had passed, they were still not to be toyed with.’ (2) The main strength of the Mantis-kinden, as represented by Tisamon, seems to be martial (though not really military – Tisamon fights alone), and these days they are apparently an inward-looking people.

We hear about Spiders only through other characters’ opinions of Atryssa. All we learn about them thus far is the stereotype, which her actions seem to confirm, that they are ‘subtle and devious’, and that there are ‘a thousand years of race-hatred’ between them and the Mantises. (4) Stenwold has been working with the artificers of Myna to establish some kind of last-ditch defence of the city, using gunpowder; when the plan doesn’t come off, Stenwold and Tisamon assume that Atryssa has betrayed it to the Wasps to enable their victory, though why she might want this is not clear.

‘Who else knew the plan? Or do you think the people of Myna have sold their own to the slavers’ block?’ (4)

The ‘dream of a black-and-gold world’ (7)

What we learn about Wasps, here, is similarly inflected by our external point of view: they are definitively othered, portrayed as both a highly organised army and a savage horde. They are described as consisting of well-equipped divisions with different strengths, and led tactically enough to have a vanguard, come in multiple waves, and seek out specific targets like the airfield; yet they are simultaneously a ‘glittering mob,’ (3) ‘a frenzied mass of hatred, out solely for slaughter.’ (8) I think part of this mismatch is simply Stenwold misunderstanding the military culture and political aims of the Wasps. For instance, he claims,

If the Wasps had been arrayed in military order they could have swept the place clean in a minute, but they were mad for blood, each one on their own. (10)

The Wasps are definitely not all out for themselves; as I’ve said, their army shows evidence of hierarchy, organisation and direction. But they’re also not interested in ‘sweeping the place clean’: their goal is to take over the city and integrate it into their empire, not to raze it to the ground. For this they need to establish control of key locations, not kill everyone they meet. At the same time, as we will learn, part of establishing control for the Wasp Empire is the spreading of terror – and furthermore, in a society that venerates ultra-violent masculinity, brutality against civilians is not looked upon negatively or seen as dishonourable.

Unlike Marius’ troops, who ‘fought beautifully’ (12), or Tisamon, ‘the most graceful man Stenwold had ever known,’ the Wasps are not portrayed as exceptional fighters. What we do know is that they come from an expansionist state, they are a relentless military force (‘It would not be quick or easy to capture this city, but the Wasps would have it in the end,’ 7) and they are numerous. ‘Their army had five men for every defender the city could muster.’ (5) Stenwold has seen their map, and he’s pretty sure they want to take over the world.


Hemesh Alles’ map from Book 1. Not pictured: Wasp ‘lines of advance and supply.’ (18)

To me, the projected Wasp Empire resembles Wallerstein’s idea of a ‘world-empire’, about which he says:

Note the hyphen […] Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are talking not about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe). […] In “world-systems” we are dealing with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules. [1]

A world-empire (such as the Roman Empire, Han China) is a large bureaucratic structure with a single political center [sic] and an axial division of labour, but multiple cultures. [2]

I’m sure I’ll return to this idea in the future, but for now I just wanted to note that the political structure of the Wasps is of a completely different kind to that of the city states and ancient civilisations of the Lowlands, and it has different aims.

The positioning of the Wasps as ambivalently civilised is mirrored in their developing but still primitive (in Stenwold’s eyes) technology:

It was ugly as sin and it hung in the air as elegantly as a hanged man, but nevertheless it stayed up and there had to be some craft in that feat. A heliopter in Wasp colours, a monstrous, uneven metal box with three spinning blades straining to keep it from crashing to the ground. There must have been hatches in its underbelly, he realised, because here was a stream of missiles falling constantly from it onto Myna. He thought they were rocks at first but, on seeing the explosions, decided they must be firepots or firepowder grenades. […]

[T]hat was a crude and primitive piece. Any self-respecting artificer would have been rightly ashamed of it. And yet it flew, and only five years ago the Wasps had possessed nothing like it. (15-16)

So, the Wasps are Apt and are quickly developing aviation technology, though they are perhaps not yet highly advanced; they are a sophisticated though inhumane fighting force; they come from outside the Lowlands, and they seem to know of a wider world than do the Lowlanders. Oh, and they want to conquer EVERYTHING.

‘We have to leave now,’ Stenwold said, ‘or we’ll never get out. Someone has to know what’s happened here. The Lowlands have to be warned.’

‘The Lowlands won’t care,’ said Marius… (5)

Historical analysis

Military technology corner

One of the dumbest things about starting this project is that I know almost nothing about the history of military technology. Not only is this something that Tchaikovsky is clearly quite interested in from a character and world-building point of view, in part perhaps because he’s a stage fighter and LARPer himself, but its development is central to the political plots. This dynamism is part of what makes the battles in the series so excellent, but it also means I’ll be constantly scrambling to catch up and learn about new stuff. Please bear with me, and if you have suggestions of reference or background works, they will be very gratefully received. [3]


Pembridge great helm, mid-14th century, and ant head drawn by Ladina Ribi. I can kind of imagine the congruence between the two. It’s something about their flat-face-iness.

Let’s get into it. In this chapter, there’s mention of several weapons and armour types. To my extremely untutored eye, much of it does at this stage seem to be roughly clustered in Europe and Asia around the High to Late Middle Ages (i.e. classic high fantasy technology) – for example, Marius and co’s great helms (1), Tisamon’s leather arming jacket (5), or Myna’s use of ballista (3) – but there are obvious exceptions.

On the one hand, the use of gunpowder is not at all anachronistic for this time period – its military use had spread across Eurasia by the 13-14th centuries – but for some reason doesn’t seem to make it into most medieval-ish fantasy. In Shadows of the Apt, it’s certainly in use amongst the Apt, though sometimes in ways I can’t think of historical parallels for:

All that time he had spent with the artificers of Myna, charging the earth in front of the gates with powder, and nothing. (3)

Some kind of large-surface-area land mine, maybe? I’m not sure, though given that it doesn’t go off, perhaps it’s a technological dead-end for the Apt anyway.

On the other hand, we have flying machines. There’ll be plenty of time for me to get into the history of aviation… but it’s safe to say that no one in the Middle Ages had anything like the metal heliopter of the Wasps or the steam-powered orthopter flown by Stenwold. I’m not sure anyone has ever had anything quite like them.

Overall, the weaponry in Chapter One is a remix of successful military technology from different time periods along with some imagined developments of paths not taken (see: aircraft with flapping wings).

The Weaponmaster

The hardest piece of military technology for me to understand in a casual reading of this chapter was Tisamon’s bladed glove, so my main focus in this ‘Military technology corner’ will be possible historical inspirations for this metal mantis claw with a two-foot edge. (11)

First, here are the main descriptions of it, which I have read perhaps 50 times at this point:

He wore his armoured glove, with the blade jutting out from between the fingers, flexing out like a sword blade one moment, folded back along his arm the next. It was an ancient tool of his kind and a laughable anachronism, save that Stenwold had witnessed what he could do with it. (7)

The Mantis was hinging his metal claw forward and back, rolling his fingers about the crosspiece to lay the blade flat against his arm, then bringing it out to jut forward from his knuckles. (18)

If you’re having trouble visualising this, then I recommend looking at some images of actual mantis legs, something I wish I’d thought to do far sooner.


Image from Guide to the exhibited series of insects in the Department of Zoology, British Museum (Nat. Hist.) (London, 1909), p.19. If you’re still confused, I recommend looking at photos of mantises; I found them easier to understand, but this is at least conveniently labelled.

Tisamon has spines on his forearm from his Mantis-Art; if he were a mantis, I think that would correspond to the femur. His claw takes the place of the mantis tibia in the diagram above, which folds in and out along the forearm (though presumably along the inner forearm, not on top of the spikes as it is for actual mantises). The weapon is buckled onto his hand so he can flex it back and forth with his fingers.

So, did anyone ever use a weapon like this?


Pata with early 18th century hilt and 16th century blade, from the Met Museum.

Not exactly, but there are some definite parallels, usefully discussed (with several discarded) in the comments on this post. The claw seems to be somewhat akin to the Indian pata or (dand)patta, a gauntlet sword used in the 16th and 17th century, especially though not solely in the Maratha Empire. Though images abound, writing in English on the pata is scarce and somewhat contradictory; for example, some sources I looked at (including Stone) describe it as only used by cavalry, whereas others emphasise its usefulness against cavalry. Some see it as a punch blade, evolved perhaps from the katar, a push-dagger with a similar crossbar hilt, whereas others describe its use for slashing – check out this video of a man showing off some skills to get an idea of how Tisamon’s spinning, leaping, slashing style of fighting, described in this chapter, might look. There are a few mentions, though, of the pata’s power (so long as one had strong forearms!), and of how highly trained one needed to be to use it. That seems about right for Tisamon. The main difference between the pata and the mantis claw is that the blade is not hinged and cannot be folded back along the arm in the same way. [4]


You hold a pata like this.

Later in the chapter, the Mantis unbuckles his gauntlet, switching to a greatbow:

Tisamon had opened his case and was stringing his greatbow. […Stenwold] would not have swapped such a bow in Tisamon’s hands for the latest repeating crossbow. (15)

As I understand it, the greatbow is basically akin to the longbow: a self-bow (i.e., made only out of wood, with the woods of choice often being yew or elm) as tall as the person shooting it, and held vertically, rather than horizontally like a crossbow.

Loades describes the appeal of the longbow as in part romantic: in the medieval period, it allowed men without much wealth or status to take down knights with their sheer strength and skill. [5] Its association with use in difficult terrain such as forests, and by folk heroes such as Robin Hood, combine to make it a great weapon for Tisamon, a wanderer if not (yet) an outlaw whose people’s most sacred places are found in the woods. Although longbows of some form had been in use for a long time before this and across much of the world, they came to prominence and are most frequently imagined in their medieval incarnation, as a weapon used in large numbers in English armies from the 13th to the early 16th centuries. It was crucial at battles such as Crécy and Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. Archers in these battles were also likely to be capable light infantrymen, so Tisamon’s switching between these weapons as required has a certain historical resonance.


Even though the historiography focuses on English/Northern European longbows, functionally identical weapons existed elsewhere. This wooden bow, nearly two metres tall, was acquired from Sri Lanka in the 19th century. British Museum, As.220.

Much of our knowledge of medieval longbows comes from the 150+ bows salvaged from the wreck of the Mary Rose, a warship sunk in 1545 and excavated between 1979 and 1982. [6] Longbows seem to have remained in use in naval battles even after they became less common in pitched battles on land; their firing speed, imperviousness to water, and the user’s ability to correct for a vessel’s movement made them preferable at sea to guns. One can imagine similar advantages when firing from an airship, as Tisamon does in this chapter.

Longbows were also effective against all kinds of armour. According to Strickland, when using a longbow, ‘[b]odkin-headed arrows could easily pierce mail, and though further ballistic tests are necessary, it seems certain that at closer range some forms of plate armour could be penetrated.’ [7] A weapon used over an extremely long period without drastic changes in design, and effective against more recent weapons and armour, is obviously fitting for a people as poor at technological innovation as the Mantises.

Stenwold is therefore perfectly justified in seeing ‘such a bow in Tisamon’s hands’ as superior to the repeating crossbow. Where wood and skilled men were readily available, the advantages of the longbow remained real until at least the fifteenth century: they were quicker to reload than a crossbow, cheap and easy to produce, and in the right hands were extremely powerful, long-ranging and accurate. In England between the 14th and 16th century, there were numerous laws attempting to enforce regular practice for men and boys so that they would be useful in case of war. [8] An ancient weapon requiring strength, skill and years of frequent training certainly seems fitting for what we know of the Mantis-kinden, but these were also the reasons they passed out of common use both in our world and that of the series. It was simply much easier for the non-expert to operate a crossbow and then a musket, a factor in the development of weaponry that Tchaikovsky makes perfectly clear as large-scale mobilisation becomes increasingly important for the Insect-kinden.

Page references within the text refer to the 2012 Tor edition of Empire in Black and Gold. 


[1] Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham, 2004), pp.16-17.

[2] Ibid., p.99.

[3] Throughout this section, I’ve used two main reference books in addition to the other works cited: James C. Bradford (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Military History (Abingdon, 2006) and Richard Holmes (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Military History (Oxford, 2001).

[4] George Cameron Stone, A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times, Together with Some Closely Related Subjects (New York, 1999 [1934]), pp.484-7; Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar, Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy (London, 2015), pp.91-2.

[5] Mike Loades, The Longbow (Oxford, 2013), p.4. The other works I relied on for the following were Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Archer (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1985); and Robert Hardy, Longbow: A Social and Military History (Yeovil, Somerset, 2010), 4th edition. I also had a quick scope out of Kaushik Roy, Hinduism and the Ethics of Warfare in South Asia: From Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, 2012), to clarify that yes, tall wooden self-bows were in use in early modern South Asia (though Muslim armies were more likely to consist of horse archers using composite bows).

[6] I learned quite a lot from this video about the Mary Rose longbows, ‘Examining an English longbow,’ from the University of Southampton, accessed at futurelearn.com/courses/agincourt/0/steps/8846.

[7] Matthew Strickland, ‘Bows’, in Holmes (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Military History, p.145.

[8] Loades, The Longbow, pp.26-30.

If you would like to discuss this chapter or any of the points I’ve raised here further, please do leave a comment!