So, initially, I thought it was going to be The Lord of the Rings, but with Bug-People. We read that Gandalf sends four young hobbits from the Shire to Bree, where they are to meet Strider. Strider is scary. They are attacked by the roving agents of the Enemy. Some escape, and some don't. The captured ones are taken deep into Enemy territory. They are rescued, with the aid of new allies, and the rescue even involves tangentially a haunted forest. It's all set in the context of an invasion by an Evil Empire into the lands of disunited peoples who have long histories of their own quarrels.
Much like how it's easy to make the respective series of Robert Jordan, George Martin, and Scott Bakker fit into the general plot outline of Dune, when the narrative is described with a sufficiently broad level of caricature, so too here it might be a simple affair to dismiss the narrative as derivative of Tolkien, updated to be steampunky, with Bug-People, who are often described at times in terms of a potentially annoying essentialism, much as with Tolkien's various species.
Dismissal is however premature. We might, with effort, chart out the functional elements of fantasy literature, as Propp did for Russian folklore in Morphology of the Folktale--but that need not constitute the basis for rejection of any particular writing. Despite the familiarity here, the setting is plenty alien, and the narrative has some nifty originalities.
It's likely a mistake, first of all, to think of the seeming Evil Empire in this text as so simplistic as the neoconservative propaganda term that's been used to describe it. It comes across as brutal, slave-owning, expressly racist. Little distinguishes it from the other cultures in the narrative, though, except that it appears to be winning. There are very thoughtful presentations of wage-slavery, "hundreds of labouring bodies," allegedly working of their own "free will," but acknowledging that "how many of them had a family an eighth of an inch from starving" (131)--occuring in places where the Empire's writ does not run. We note also a caste mentality, leaving a "poor half-breed" with little option to be other than a "slave at worst, or at best an unskilled laborer" (49)--though one city-state pats itself on the back for the apparently radical opinion that such poor half-breeds should be educated and employed meritocratically. This and other city-states like to sell arms to both sides in ongoing wars, much like the United States, surely one of the lowest forms of douchebaggery. The empire, by contrast, is mostly Roman with a touch of Mongol--which means that it is property-oriented, male-oriented, expansionist. The various Bug-Peoples are not an allegory or roman a clef otherwise.
The area into which the Evil Empire thrusts itself has undergone, not recently, a revolution, casting off a race-monarchy of the Inapt over the Apt. The marketing description of the book at times makes it seem as though aptness is a matter of magickes v. technology. This is not completely correct, because each of the specific Bug-Peoples, including the Apt, has their own "Art," which encompasses various types of fantasy functions. Magickes proper appear on the margins, among, surely, the remnants of the now-dispossessed race-monarchists, who are generally not able to work doorknobs.
The text presents the perspective of an imperial army officer, who is devoted to the idea of Empire, unlike his compatriots, who are motivated by personal ambition or capital accumulation or whatever. The narrative also brings the narrators into contact with a bona fide national liberation movement, against the empire. The intersection of the army officer and the revolutionaries is interesting, and not without consequence. We also get some race-monarchist perspective, too, to round out the presentation of the various historical forces at work--but generally the narrative focuses on our four insect-hobbits, who are a mixed group of apt and inapt, but who have all been trained at the progressive university of the preeminent apt city-state.
Amid all of the discussion of industry, commerce, and technology are gems of the setting's history, which could be rich, but we only receive quick glances. The story partakes of action-adventure at times, and espionage thriller at others, as well as nauseating adolescent sex drama and concomitant bildungsroman. It's not a bad mix, perhaps moves a bit quickly at times--I want it to slow down, catch its breath, and explain some of its key concepts. I'm definitely feeling the adrenaline, though, and it's fun to watch a group of unlikely ass-kickers take down a bunch of redshirts, but I'll be wanting more out of the next installment than the novelty of Bug-People giving beatdowns to jackboots and turning to luddite quasi-terrorism as a weapon contra the invasion.
Recommended for fans of Conan the Bugbarian, people who batter themselves against the glass, and those who always suspected that the mantis is completely badass.