Book Review: Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Sun Eater
Publisher: DAW Books (July 3, 2018)
Length: 624 pages
For epic fantasy lovers who want to see storytelling, characters, and worldbuilding get the same extensive, sweeping treatment in sci-fi, Empire of Silence is the answer. In this ambitious debut, author Christopher Ruocchio introduces readers to Hadrian Marlowe, a monster or a hero—you decide. The entire galaxy knows his name, but well before he achieved notoriety as the man who defeated an alien race—by destroying a sun and snuffing out billions of lives to do it—he was the disappointing firstborn son of a noble archon and hopeful heir to the family’s uranium empire. Since so much of the truth about his past has been misrepresented or obscured, Hadrian’s own accounting of his life’s story makes it clear there is much more than meets the eye.
As a youth, all Hadrian wanted was to one day take his father’s place as head of the family business, even though he held no enthusiasm for the prospect it in his heart. Sibling rivalry, however, would spur him on do anything to prevent his cruel and nasty younger brother Crispin form being named the heir. But their father, Alistair, had other plans. Recognizing that his bookish eldest son had none of the leadership qualities he wanted, the archon instead decides to ship Hadrian off to the Chantry so that the Marlowes would have an insider with influence in the galaxy’s most powerful religious organization.
Fortunately, with some help, Hadrian manages to avoid the bleak future Alistair had arranged for him, but winds up penniless and in exile on a remote backwater planet, going from privileged son of a nobleman to living like a beggar on the streets. Desperate to earn a way off-world, he sells his services as a gladiator, eventually achieving enough renown to be hired by an aristocratic family to tutor them in languages. His various roles lead him to an encounter with a prisoner from an alien race known as the Cielcins, who are at war with humans. Working together with a xenobiologist, Hadrian begins his journey to understand the so-called enemy in an attempt to broker peace between their two species.
Told in the tradition of epic fantasy novels like The Name of the Wind and Blood Song, Empire of Silence is an autobiography-style narrative recounted by a controversial and misunderstood protagonist who looks back at his long and storied life. It’s a confluence of genres as readers are presented a sprawling blockbuster novel containing just as many fantasy elements as sci-fi. Hadrian is brought up amidst lordly intrigue and drama not unlike something you would imagine on Game of Thrones, complete with castle cities and gladiatorial spectacles. Other readers have also commented on the Dune-like handling of the politics, economics, philosophy and history of this world. In fact, I can’t say there is much in this novel that is truly original, but what makes it special is Ruocchio’s enthusiasm and willingness to blend all these ideas together into one cool concoction.
Also, for a book like this to work, the story must quickly establish an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist. This was a success for the most part; the early sections manage to create a lot of sympathy for Hadrian. He’s clever, but also awkward and sometimes frustrating in his youthful naivete and malaise. In other words, his confusion and lack of direction is something many of us can relate to, and indeed the first half of this book reads very much like coming-of-age narrative about a young man struggling to find his place in the world. Predictably, a string of unpleasant things happens to him to open to his eyes to the truth of his family, leading him to abandon his affluent lifestyle and everything he has ever known.
Things get real interesting at this point. Pacing is swift as Hadrian is shuffled through all kinds of tragedies, leaving me barely enough time to catch my breath between disasters. The highlight of the book for me was our protagonist’s brief stint as a gladiator, hanging out with his fellow fighters and teaching them to fight effectively as a team. Alas, all too soon it was over, along with my favorite part of the book. Admittedly, the second half of the novel did not hold my attention quite as well as the first, and at times the flow of the story felt sluggish due to the staggering amount of information dumped on us to establish Hadrian’s new role in humanity’s war against the Cielcin. Ironically, the plot started to lose me just as it was beginning to chronicle his first steps becoming the most reviled man in the galaxy, earning him the epithet Sun Eater. To be fair though, my tastes in epic science fiction fantasy tend to run towards personal stories, closer-quarter action, and high-spirited adventure, so perhaps it was only natural for me to find greater appeal in the first half of this novel. Others will likely not encounter the same issue.
Regardless, Empire of Silence is a rock solid debut, its derivative nature notwithstanding. Any points the novel loses in the originality department, Christopher Ruocchio more than makes up for it with his superb character development and the sheer “unputdownability” of his storytelling. Mark my words, this book is going places.