Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

I received a digital ARC from the publisher, Gollancz, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

In Empire of Silence, we follow the tale of Hadrian Marlowe, who is now a figure of legend, feared and revered. Written as a memoir, the story relates the major events of his long and busy life. As the eldest son of a noble house, he is born into privilege but is brought low when his escape from a tyrannical father, who wants him to become a glorified torturer, goes awry.

The book is a slow-burning epic space opera. It is set on a sprawling background as we unveil the man behind the legend while he struggles against the many obstacles that come his way. The world of men is at war with a humanoid alien race, demonised by an overly zealous, too-powerful religious entity that preaches the supremacy of mankind. Hadrian, who has scholarly inclinations, is fascinated by these “demons” and wants to better understand their culture and worldview. This fascination – and his restlessness when put in any kind of cage (even, and especially, the gilded type) trigger all sorts of twists and misadventures.

“Epic space opera” does not mean that we’re drowned under a ton of information about the worlds, the races, the technologies, the cultures. I’m usually not fond of fantasy books where there is a lot to process, to the point where I have to just ignore part of the worldbuilding so I won’t be overwhelmed (some fantasy fan I make!). In Empire of Silence, the world is intricate and rich but does not overpower the story. Through Hadrian, ever the academic, we get anthropological observations when needed and we get a better understanding of the power and reach of the theological authority.

The tone is self-reflective, introspective — and prone to a touch of melodrama. The book addresses a reader who is aware of Hadrian’s reputation; in it, he confesses and corrects the record if needs be. We get tantalising hints of what exactly this reputation entails, and with these teasing flashes of information, Ruocchio creates an engrossing and addictive tale. Empire of Silence has been hailed as a space opera Kingkiller Chronicle, and it’s pretty easy to see why. But whatever Kvothe has achieved, Hadrian has done worse; the former killed a king, the latter a sun.

I gave the book 4 stars instead of 5 because the main character managed to squander all the sympathy I had for him in a mere (heh) 200 pages or so. Even with his philosophical meditations and his mea culpas, it feels like Hadrian has a tendency to attribute to fate events that are direct consequences of his reckless actions. It’s not a flaw per se, it looks like a voluntary choice by Ruocchio, but first person narration can be unforgiving if you start getting irritated by the character.

This first book is obviously a first act. The scene is set, the protagonists are introduced, and the sequels will draw a better picture of the legendary and catastrophic actions Hadrian has undertaken. I recommend you give Empire of Silence a try, especially if:

  • You don’t mind big books! I honestly felt out of breath when I finally reached the ending. It has nothing to do with the quality of the story, I just don’t have the reading stamina for tomes anymore…
  • You like memoir/diary formats, and in particular, Kingkiller Chronicle.
  • You enjoy space operas/ far-future space fantasy.
  • You don’t mind a main character you’ll occasionally want to slap.
  • You like your SFF with a hint of reflection about eugenics and the place of mankind in the universe. And with a small but substantial serving of linguistics and anthropology. And peppered with some philosophical notions.

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