Lord Hadrian Marlowe is, by his own admission, his own worst enemy.
A patrician son of the cruelly authoritarian ruler of the planet Delos, Sir Alistair Marlowe, who does not share his class’s love of crowd-pleasing bloodsports, oppression of the poor or dismissive attitude of anything below their imagined station, Hadrian is a man of noble gestures and good intent; unfortunately, much of his execution leaves a great deal to be desired, borne of arrogance, impulsiveness and an unhelpful rush of anger.
In the often-fraught, highly-regulated world he inhabits, speaking or acting of turn is not conducive to advancement or even staying alive in many cases, with the Sollan Empire of which Delos is a small though lucrative part (thanks to its uranium deposits) a curious mixture of Roman Empire military, medieval religious dogma (the Chantry, as it’s called, is the real power behind the literal throne) and advanced technology which is restricted in its use to the highest of classes.
All this extravagant, richly-detailed worldbuilding informs the debut novel of Christopher Ruocchio, Empire of Silence, which, set thousands of years into the future, imagines a universe where humanity has spread through the stars like wildfire, partly driven by ambition but also by necessity with the Earth, an icon of worship for the Chantry who preach a gospel of manifest destiny, an uninhabitable relic.
With Hadrian our eyes and ears into an empire which is light years removed from our own, both past and future, we venture into the slowly-unfolding labyrinthine Machiavellian intrigue where power and influence can be lost in an ill-uttered word or rash act (and reversed just as quickly should you be so favoured).
“Now I had the other problem to consider, and it was by far the more complicated one. In a sense I had less right of travel than the meanest plebeian. Any common dock worker or urban farm technician not planetbound by blood might earn passage offworld, or else enlist in the Legions—there was a war on after all. But I … I was scrutinized, guarded, protected. At least when I wasn’t getting myself pummelled nearly to death by a bike gang in the streets of Meidua. And yet that particular episode did inspire in me a measure of confidence. I had slipped away from my watchful sentinels once, hadn’t I?
I could do it again.” (P. 85)
All of which is a problem for Hadrian, who is the assumed heir to the Delian throne, a young man condemned by genetic manipulation – patricians are not born so much as decanted from a laboratory chamber – and position to occupy a world almost entirely not to his liking.
While his younger brother Crispin lusts after the glory and violence of the Colosso (coliseum) and is as unthinkingly cruel as his father, Hadrian prefers more academic and artisistic pursuits including the study of languages such as that of the Empire’s most implacable foe, with which it has been at war for hundreds of years, the Cielcin (they have been deemed as “demons” by the Chantry who, like all theocracies, stymie knowledge and questioning in favour of unbreachable “truths”).
Alas, what you want as a noble counts for nought and Hadrian faces a future boxed by suffocating rules and regulations, beliefs and edicts, all of which rests somewhere back in humanity’s ancient past, proof that you can all the technology and advancement but without any real change in the intractable bigotry and fear of human nature.
It is only when a series of events, yes largely of Hardrian’s own creation, come crashing one into the other, the man born to rule finds himself on a wholly different, lifechanging journey that changes him trajectory forever. (The fascinating aspect to Empire of Silence is that we know, bu virtue of the fact that Hadrian is writing from his prison cell in the future, that many of his present hopes and dreams will come to nothing; rather than sucking the emotional-resonance and tension out of the storyline, it actually amplifies it.)
Empire of Silence is a wholly impressive, utterly unique epic of storytelling.
By bringing together many of the tropes of science fiction and fantasy, Ruocchio creates an engrossingly dense and immersive tale like no other, one which provides scathing commentary – though this is well-woven into the narrative so you don’t end up with a ranty polemic but rather a clever exploration of the issues – on the way humanity has an endless ability, Hadrian well and truly among them, to shoot itself in the collective foot.
Of course, no one will admit this is happening, with dissent and censorship, dogma and writ so deeply-entrenched that the Empire, all 40,000 worlds and counting, is as sclerotic and rootbound as any empire before it, a captive of limited thought and perspective that has no place for the likes of Hadrian, and certainly the ideas of free-thinking, knowledge-embracing Valka, a xenobiologist from the human-populated, non-Empire Tavrosi Demarchy, who dismisses the supposedly advanced peoples of the imperial system in which she lives and operates, as “barbarians”.
With the war with Cielcin, tall, willowy pale white humanoid beings, growing ever closer to the heart of the Empire, and the root clearly setting from within, it is only people like Hadrian that can avert what looks like an inevitable course.
Alas, he is up against two trenchant enemies – the established order and his own failings which continually damn and elevate him in equal measure, usually the former more than the latter.
“I had some theories, but none I was prepared to share. ‘I am a prisoner here, Valka. Why is that so hard to explain? I can no more leave here than the Umandh. Why do you think I worked so hard to stay in the coliseum? I didn’t want … any of this. I didn’t ask to be here. I didn’t ask for Gilliam to have it out for me. I didn’t ask for you—‘ I broke off before I said something truly foolish and looked away.” (P. 414)
Both Hadrian and the Empire he inhabits are brilliant creations, multi-faceted, richly-wrought and fascinating, propelling a slow-moving storyline that never once feels like it’s anything less than enthralling.
Clearly Ruocchio is possessed of a great love of learning himself with his densely-written novel, brimming with fascinating observations of language, the use of power, archaeology, family, fate, religion and social mores, among many, many others, a feat of knowledge as much as storytelling.
His fastidious attention to detail means that Empire of Silence is one of those rare epic books that is both narratively-engrossing and stunningly packed with so many rich insights and observations that you have to slow down your reading speed to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
It is also possessed of a welcome queer sensibility with many of the characters in the novel including Hadrian’s mother Lillian, and his patron at one time, Count Balian Mataro, firmly and unapologetically not straight; no big deal is made of their sexuality (bar pointing to the Empire’s sexual diversity, an oddity given how repressive it is in many other respects) which is as it should be, they are simply in the relationships they are in and that, rather pleasingly, is that.
Do not mistake a slowly-unfurling story for not much taking place; Ruocchio packs each and every scene full of a thousand thoughts, feelings and insights, and action aplenty, such you will have to stop to savour them all, but never once do you feel mudbound or becalmed, with a story that, as the first in a series, stands on its own epic feet while opening the door to untold, no doubt, richly-expressed adventures to come.