Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Empire of Silence takes place in a far future of our civilization, where biotechnology and space travel have enabled the human race to establish a galactic empire. For centuries this empire has been under attack from another civilization that also discovered space travel, and Hadrian Marlowe has grown up as the elder (genetically-engineered) son of a minor lord on a minor world. He’s rich, but not that politically powerful. Hadrian is, despite his militaristic upbringing, passionate about intellectual pursuits. He’s an artist, an avid learner of languages, and quite clumsy with the ladies. Constantly in conflict with his younger brother, Hadrian assumes he will inherit his father’s duchy, but things go astray when he is instead assigned to join the ruling guild of torturers and propaganda artists. Hadrian and his scheming mother find a way out, however, which results in Hadrian’s first trip off-world. He escapes his father’s plans only to find himself waking up from interstellar hibernation nowhere near where he expected, penniless, and unable to reveal his noble status.
The story is told in retrospect as the narrator awaits his fate. Although this is not part of the story, at least not yet, the narrator (Hadrian) has done something horrible, and is rather notorious. This doesn’t get in the way, but instead provides a great device by which the narrator introduces doubt and comments on events with information he learned later in the story. It’s a really well-devised world, built in believable steps with believable technologies, that doesn’t rely on stupid-sounding technobabble. It’s not grimdark, but it’s mature and intense, with no cutesy stuff, and well-formed relationships, romantic and otherwise. And underneath it all, there’s some spooky stuff going on. I love that element of it.
I would give this book four-and-a-half stars if I could. This is a well-written book, and Christopher Ruocchio is a knowledgeable, well-rounded and intellectual writer who knows what he is doing. Most importantly he doesn’t shy away from real intellectual engagement in philosophical terms. I only give five stars to my absolute favorite books or established classics, so this one gets four, but this book is one of the best of the year, and surely one of the best contemporary series I’ve read. It’s one that I’ll keep up with, along with The Black Witch Chronicles and the Song of Shattered Sands. I don’t mind making a few enemies saying this: a few people have called this “The Name of the Wind in space,” but I’d have to say the crucial difference here is that this book is actually interesting.
It’s better than that, though, mainly because it’s written by someone with real taste, an author who isn’t just pointing to cliches in order to establish rapport with the reader (note: I’m not saying that’s what Patrick Rothfuss did, but many others do). Instead, Christopher Ruocchio has created a culture and world out of believable and sophisticated use of language. He’s not just a Tolkien nerd who read a few books on how to create a language (although he’s certainly fooled me if he hasn’t), but rather someone who understands the interplay between language, culture, and biology to create a convincing future history. For example in the foundational mythology of the interstellar human culture of the empire, the story of King Arthur has been mixed with the story of The Buddha. I got a kick out of that. He also doesn’t shy away from using technical grammatical jargon as exposition, or even as a plot point.
He is also adept at creating romantic and plot tension. For the first time in a long time I was on the verge of shouting “Kiss her, damn it!” at a book. Yes, shouting at a book. There really is an excellent understanding of human relationships here, and the constant interplay between the main character’s social standing and his naivete works up to produce plenty of interesting situations. It was fun to read a space opera where things on so many worlds have reverted to more medieval situations, and hence it reads a lot like a fantasy book.
It is a long book, however, and I had to pick up something shorter afterward. I didn’t find it exactly un-putdownable, but when I did get into reading it, I read it at long stretches, wanting to know what would happen next. This is the kind of book that traces a character’s life across a long arc of his lifetime, and since his lifetime is over 900 years, there is a nice tension of whether the narrator is being honest. It reminds me more of Severian than Kvothe.
I loved it, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Howling Dark.
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