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July 2018: Dystopian > Empire of Silence--Christopher Ruocchio-4 stars

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message 1: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments After posting this review, I came to see there were enough oppressive elements wielded by the masters of this universe to qualify for a dystopian tag, comparable to that in Red Rising.

This for me was a very satisfying sci fi extravaganza of a far-future human empire. A major theme it includes from that genre is how to overcome xenophobia in the face of hostilities that develop with an alien race. But this hefty novel takes the form of epic fantasy, albeit without magic and supernatural beings. There are mythic overtones to the incredible challenges our hero must overcome on his life’s journey, emulations of Imperial Rome and the medieval religious power of the Spanish Inquisition, and a high significance accorded to one-on-one combat with swords. Despite my aversion to such tropes in the world building, was drawn to the complex moral challenges faced by the main character in his development and I loved Ruocchio’s immersive details in his environments and windows he makes into different social sectors. I didn’t really want the book to end, and when it did it achieved enough resolution for a fulfilling pause while opening a propitious door to future installments (I hate it when series volumes end on cliff hangers).

The narrator and subject, Hadrian Marlow, introduces himself as some kind of man of power with a history of daring action who is reflecting back from a time when he is being judged as a monstrous perpetrator of a genocide involving his causing the death of a star. Apparently, he is writing this memoir we read as a way for him to account for how that came to be from his character, as shaped by his choices at critical turning points. He grows up as the son of a royal imperial governor for the planet Delos with much wealth from his colonial regional monopoly in uranium mining and trade. The imperial “palatine” bloodline he benefits from gives him the advantages special strength, disease resistance, and longevity in the range of a couple of centuries.

He and his brother are being educated in all the skills needed for one of them to inherit and advance the family throne. But Hadrian is sickened by the injustices committed by the societal tyranny and the colonial exploitations of his father’s regime and hankers not for power, but for knowledge and adventure, dreaming of becoming a scholar of peoples and places in the distant stars. He refuses to fight in the rigged gladiator contests against ill-equipped prisoners and slaves and gets consigned by his lofty dad to enter the order of the Chantry. This powerful organized religion is embraced by the imperial government everywhere for social control of the masses through torture and execution of any political enemy that can be labelled as a heretic.

Hadrian’s plans to escape this fate depend on help from his “scholiast” mentor and martial arts instructor, Gibson, who is Hadrian’s only true friend. What Gibson ultimately sacrifices for Hadrian to fulfill his dreams is a first taste of how the noble path to revolt over integrity and humanistic goals leads to the evil of harming others. Together with his tendency to disastrous impulsive action, this trait of serving his ego above all other concerns will get him stuck in many a desperate strait throughout this book. Eventually I came to see how these very traits were the ones that helped empower him to extract himself from each succeeding trap he got into.

I shan’t go into plot details, but I can say Hadrian has to work his way up from life on the street as a beggar and thief on backwater planet, to service as a hired gladiator, and then he is dragooned as a language tutor for a ruling family. His training and skills in languages includes some facility with that of the alien Cieclins, who are at war with the empire. When a violent skirmish with the Cieclins brings him into a situation as interpreter for Chantry staff engaged in their torturous interrogation, Marlowe begins to conspire with a visiting xenobiologist lady (and love interest) to somehow work toward peace between the species. The real plot lies in how Hadrian learns to engage the trust and loyalty of people around him at each phase and the creativity employed in negotiating the crises that arise with each.

Although I enjoyed Lord of the Rings and Dune as a teenager, I have not been much attracted as a reader to epic fantasy. Yet my recent tour of Homer and other ancient writings has made me more appreciative of the wisdom in mythic archetypes of human nature. Good and evil even in these foundational tales are rarely painted as a simple dichotomy, showing how the best of us must make many moral compromises to reach lofty goals. Here our hero in his development succeeds time after time by bending his fate from that controlled by the unjust powers that be through craftiness as well as brawn, and often by morally ambiguous means. Like Odysseus, he has to use every trick in the book to dodge through all the extreme and dangerous barriers put in his path by powerful adversaries (certain gods in Homer) and reach a noble end (arriving home to family in the ancient story). As in that tale, I am well driven to resolve the mystery of what kind of hero can be so awful at the end (killing a star here versus in Homer the slaughter his wife’s many suitors and female slaves seen as collaborators). Must be bad karma somewhere or dangerous beastie in the human id, I suppose.


message 2: by Sushicat (new)

Sushicat | 805 comments This sounds interesting.


message 3: by Amy N. (new)

Amy N. | 256 comments I feel the same way about epic fantasy: liked Lord of the Rings and Dune, not much into the genre as a whole. This sounds pretty fascinating, though.


message 4: by Michael (new)

Michael (mike999) | 569 comments So much creative talent at play in the genre that I had to change my ways. Nice with this one jow much attention is paid to character development and less on dramatic actions.


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