There is nothing incredibly unique about the plot of this book. There is a bad empire, and one man knows about them. No one will believe that man, so it's a "one man against the world" type thing. He has his lovable sidekicks which start out ignorant and age throughout the novel because they endured some horrible events and fights and all that.
You don't read this book for the plot. You read it because Tchaikovsky has succeeded in creating one of the most unique worlds I've ever read. Ever.
Tchaikovsky must have been thinking one night and had a discussion with himself that went something like this: "Man, I'm sick of all these stereotypical magic systems and creatures that are elves with different names. I'm going to write a book about something totally different." He did it, and he succeeded.
There are no humans in his world. Instead there are kinden, each with insect traits. There are wasp kinden, dragonfly, butterfly, moth, beetle, ant, fly, mosquito and much more. Each has an "ancestor art"so the wasps can "sting" with energy from their hands and beetles can basically endure almost anything and are also good at machinery and so on. It's truly incredible. So the "apt" kindens (beetles and the such) can wrap their minds around machinery while the others (spiders, dragonflies, moths and etc) can't. He really toed a line with this plot point which I think would be very hard for an author to succeed with. Apt species can load crossbows because of their mechanical working minds while spiders and etc would look at a crossbow and have no idea how it works. Consequently, the lands where many apt kindens live are mechanically forward with automotive, trains and flying contraptions.
I am usually not a fan of reading fantasy with machinery involved. I usually avoid them like the plague, so I was on the fence with this book because of that. I put off reading it because I thought it would bug me. However, the machines involved are different enough that they don't bother me. The creatures are fantastically created. There is a wedge between the apt kinden's and the others, problems with modernization, deforestation, slavery and the such. Very cool.
The plot really isn't that unique, but the world is so amazing that it is completely worth reading. And don't get me wrong, despite the fact that the plot isn't unique, doesn't mean you shouldn't read this book. It's a fantastic story, lovable characters and if it is a bit predictable at points, it's okay because it's so enjoyable. The author also has another unexpected gift besides offering his readers an incredible world to read about and absorb themselves in. Tchaikovsky has a unique gift and unparalleled talent for making the "villan" one of the most likable guys in any book, ever. This conflict has two distinct sides, but it's easy for you to understand where both of them are coming from. I love this! I love it when characters are multidimensional, when authors present conflicts from all perspectives, when the bad guy isn't bad just to be bad for the sake of being bad. He really, really excelled at this.
This is the first book in a series and it should be read as such. What I mean by this is that the whole series shouldn't be judged off of the first book. First books, especially with new authors, tend to be the weakest books in the series. They lay down the foundation for future books. I anticipate more complex plots to come and increasing diversity away from the traditional plot points so many other books have followed. His world and characters, as well as his magic system (called "Art") are so unique I can almost see no possibility for this series to remain on the same track as the first one. It will be far too easy to turn left where many others authors have turned right with all he has set up.
There are downsides. Tchaikovsky tended to switch perspectives with little to no warning at times which stilted his writing and really stood out to me. The plot was nothing unique, though I think the incredible world building made up for that. Some of the personalities in his characters were a little contrived. However, that's not to say that they weren't lovable and involving and there was a touch of romance thrown in, but wonderfully done and not the least bit overbaring. It's a secondary plot line that doesn't happen till the end, so don't panic.
I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for something different, series where one book builds on the last, anyone who enjoys multiple perspectives and doesn't mind a little action and politics. Also, this book seemed to raise a lot of "racial" issues and were thought provoking. If that kind of thing gets you (like it does me) then I think you should definitely put this book in your "to read" pile.