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Empire of Silence – Book Review

I finished reading Empire of Silence a little over a year ago, but it was one of those books that I enjoyed so much, my only reaction at the time was *excited pterodactyl noises.*

(Admittedly, I don’t actually know what an excited pterodactyl sounds like, nor what sort of noise it would make after discovering a new favorite book, but I imagine it would be something like the distinctive gibberish that screeches out of my mouth every time this happens.)

Anyway, now that I’ve had the time to articulate that noise into human words, here goes.

Christopher Ruocchio’s Empire of Silence is an epic space opera that reads like Frank Herbert’s Dune, if Dune were set in Space Rome and if its writing wasn’t as dry as its setting. It follows the young life of Hadrian Marlowe, heir to the Sollan Empire—which, if he is to follow in the footsteps of his father (and under the powerful influence of the Chantry), involves becoming a ruler who maintains his power through fear and torture. Not wanting to rule through atrocity, Hadrian makes an elaborate plan to escape—but his plan goes awry, and while he successfully escapes his future, he tumbles into a life of poverty and violence harsher than anything he’s ever known. And even when he manages to pull himself out of that, it’s into a world of intrigue that’s even more complex than the empire he escaped from…and which points toward even darker ends.

After all, one doesn’t get named “the Sun Eater” without good reason.

This, of course, is a vast oversimplification of everything that takes place in this massive 624-page tome, but that doesn’t matter because, if you like deeply complex epic science fiction, you’re going to read it anyway.

Before you go in, though, you should know it’s not a fast read.

Empire of Silence is a novel that is as much about the inner workings of its world as it is Hadrian’s struggle, and it’s written in a way that asks the reader to savor the world. This is a setting so wildly advanced that social class is defined not only by economic opportunity, but through access to technology and genetic modifications, where the upper classes lean so heavily into artificial modification that they can no longer procreate naturally lest they produce a child with birth defects. Through this (and other details), the novel asks a lot of interesting questions about the future societal implications of extreme human modification. Granted, it’s all peripheral to the heart of Hadrian’s story, but it’s still deeply intriguing.

Just as intriguing, Hadrian’s is also a world where access to specific technologies and even to the depths of human history is regulated by the quasi-religious Chantry, which keeps a stranglehold on even the ruling families of the Sollan Empire and isn’t above using truly medieval techniques to enforce its will (and the ignorance of the people beneath its power). Yet, outside the power of the Chantry and Sollan Empire, there are multifarious other cultures that indulge in these banned technologies and explore those histories. Not to mention the truly otherworldly alien species that show up. Because of this sheer variety—and the inherent conflicts it causes—this is one of the few modern epic sci-fi worlds that actually lives up to the “epic” descriptor. The violence is epic, sure, but so is the sheer sense of scale and wonder that emanates from the page. The contrasts between all these human and alien cultures—and what they show Hadrian about himself and his home empire—make for engrossing reading.

Just not fast reading.

There were indeed moments where I wondered where exactly the story thought it was going—but those moments were immediately dismissed because even when the plot was slow, the artful writing kept me absolutely entranced. I’d almost call this novel literary fiction, except that where most literary writing is merely pretentious, Ruocchio’s writing features frequent gems of unexpected, genuine wisdom. There were more than a few moments where I had to stop reading just to admire a specific turn of phrase or the clever perceptiveness of a single line.

But of course, artful writing—and even an artfully-realized world—is worthless if the characters that inhabit it aren’t interesting, and Hadrian himself is definitely that, though for reasons one might not expect.

Hadrian’s story is a bildungsroman told in the framed style of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of The Wind, to draw another popular comparison. Protagonists in these kinds of stories often come across as too-capable or too-perfect (as Kvothe does in NOTW), but if anything, Hadrian is the opposite. While he has his kick-butt, heroic moments, and while he’s certainly capable in his own ways, many of his problems are, in fact, caused by himself. Whether it’s a plan going awry for reasons he should have anticipated, the result of a badly-timed impulse, or some ill-considered curiosity, Hadrian frequently becomes his own worst enemy—and yet does it in a way that keeps the reader rooting for him. Reading about Hadrian’s adventures is very much like watching the exploits of a well-intentioned but occasionally dumb little brother, who you genuinely like but sometimes want to smack in the back of the head. He’s definitely a flawed character, but flawed in the best way. After all, as much as readers enjoy a good, straightforward hero, they do get boring after a while, and even when Hadrian gets himself into stupid situations, they’re situations that make sense in the context of his established character—and, importantly, are fun to read as he works his way out of them. (Or deeper into them. It’s Hadrian, after all.)

However, there are elements of Hadrian’s character that might grate some readers. He’s pretty clearly the sensitive, artsy son in a family that values ferocious jocks (okay, gladiators, but same idea), which inches toward cliché. Also, at its simplest, his struggle is that of the Poor Little Rich Boy feeling oppressed by the responsibilities of his privilege, which is a hard struggle for some readers to take seriously. But also, like…if the unavoidable trappings of my future required me to turn into a despotic trash can of a human being, I’d nope the heck out of there, too. All that said, a reader’s mileage with Hadrian’s story is going to hinge on how much patience they have with his character (and with the storytelling style in general).

But like many things that require patience, this novel is entirely worth it. Eloquently written, exquisitely detailed, and epic in every sense of the word, Empire of Silence deserves to be a new sci-fi classic.

***

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