A general and spoiler-free overview of the plot is that the Wasps (the Empire in Black and Gold) are patiently expanding, conquering cities and subjugating other peoples. The Lowlands resemble Greek or Renaissance Italy city-states, and are being chewed up piecemeal. Stenwold, a Beetle intent upon stopping the Wasps taking over the Lowlands, is one of the few with an eye on the bigger picture, and the story follows his efforts and those of his agents to prevent this.
The decision to divide mankind into species (or perhaps subspecies) based mostly on insects and the odd arachnid is a good one. The insects are alien enough to be a bit weird and original but well-known enough that you quickly get a feel for what being a Mantis or a Spider might mean.
I felt a little bit unengaged in some of the early chapters, and I think one or two characters could’ve been fleshed out a bit more. However, the antagonist was very well-written (reminded me of the villain in Shadow Hearts, in that regard alone). No cackling black-robed megalomaniac offering a cardboard cut-out villainy, but a reasoned, intelligent and even sympathetic foe, which added greatly to the book.
The world is more technologically advanced than standard fantasy fare, including rail, flying machines and weaponry halfway between bows (also featured) and proper guns. One city in particular stood out as being innovative and creative, with the others being built along more familiar lines.
The plot progresses at a pretty rapid pace, and the characters develop well. There’s a nice element of generations older and younger trying to work alongside one another, and the odd spot of unrequited love (thankfully not overdone. When it comes to books I much prefer blood and guts to romance).
I was surprised to see that 86% into the book (I got the electronic version) it finished, but this was because of a number of extras at the end. These included about 3-4 miniature stories mostly unrelated to the main characters of the book proper, as well as some pictures of the various races of man. I loved one of these mini-stories (the one with the treasure) and was indifferent to the others.
It was quite hard reviewing this, because at some points I was disengaged, but at others I absolutely loved what I was reading. Overall, I’d say that it has a lot of good aspects and is worth getting. I do plan getting the follow-up (Dragonfly Falling), but I may get the Mistborn Trilogy first.