Empire of Silence is a fascinating and flawed work of epic science fiction.
What’s It About?
Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio follows Hadrian Marlowe, heir to the Archon of Delos – the absolute ruler of an entire planet. Hadrian isn’t sure he wants to rule a planet though – he’d rather become a scholar and travel the galaxy, exploring strange new worlds and such.
Sensing his uncertainty, Hadrian’s calculating father favours his second son to become heir. Before the situation can be resolved though, unforeseen events send Hadrian on a trek across the galaxy – but not in the way he’d been hoping for.
Also, he destroyed a sun – or rather, he will destroy a sun. Framed as the life story of an older Hadrian, Empire of Silence begins the Sun Eater series, which follows Hadrian throughout his millennia-long life to answer these simple questions: How did he destroy a sun, and why?
What Did I Think?
Sold when Ruocchio was just 22, Empire of Silence is a major achievement – especially in worldbuilding. Its universe is BIG – one of the biggest I’ve read, and he does a fantastic job of conveying that sense of scale to readers. Aside from the plot, I am excited to read the sequels just to see more of what Ruocchio has created. From the variety of alien ‘xenobites’ to the many different intergalactic superpowers, it’s clear that this universe is far from empty.
Though Empire of Silence is basically Ruocchio’s version of Dune for the first chapter or two, change comes very quickly. It is no more derivative than anything else in an established genre and develops some awesome and unique worldbuilding. I also enjoyed the plot structure, with Hadrian’s story told in four or five distinct sections. It allowed for a deeper examination of the world, and from more perspectives, than most first-person point-of-view stories achieve. Conversely, using this structure had a few downsides, such as introducing too many characters and weird pacing. I still liked it though.
On a smaller-scale, Ruocchio has also developed a varied cast of characters – though aside from Hadrian, we don’t see any of them as often as I would have liked. As a protagonist, Hadrian is . . . alright. His inner struggles are layered and interesting, and despite his stereotypical origin story he remains a unique character. In terms of preference though, I just wasn’t that into him.
He is a bit of a Gary Stu, and too pompous for me to really root for. In fairness, Ruocchio clearly recognizes how pretentious Hadrian is – he’s a far better character in this regard than Red Rising’s Darrow. Despite this, I really wish Ruocchio had toned him down – but a lot of it seems like he just couldn’t help himself. I also think Ruocchio bent the plot around Hadrian a little too much, and not always believably.
After Hadrian’s most pretentious and ponderous moments, Ruocchio regularly had him think something like “oh, my old teacher always told me I was too melodramatic.” I cannot express how annoying this small thing was to me. It’s like Ruocchio wrote the passage, recognized how self-aggrandizing it came off as, and then tacked on that extra thought as if to excuse it. That doesn’t make it better – especially the fourth or fifth time he did it.
Most of my other complaints deal with Ruocchio’s writing. Empire of Silence – from mixed metaphors to adjectives that make no sense – has purple prose (in my opinion). If you appreciate authors who are economical about their word choice, you’ll probably struggle here. This is a nitpick, but Ruocchio’s use of “decade” and “quarter” as quantities bugged me (ex. “a decade of legionaries”). In other cases, I appreciate his intentioned word choice, but when there is a simple and more common alternative, use it!
I also wish he’d included somewhat less literary and historical references. Like, yes, it’s impressive how well-read Ruocchio was at 22 – but I wish he could have restrained himself in showing it off. I get that, in context, Hadrian is well-read in English literature, but particularly in such referencing he felt very author-inserty. To be fair, this somewhat bothered me in Hyperion too, though not to the same extent.
Speaking of Hyperion, there are many references to it and other media in the book, and it’s fun to spot them. For example, I enjoyed the multiple Kingdom of Heaven references, though I wonder if Ruocchio knows he lifted a short scene pretty much directly from the film (he probably does).
Another issue relating to craft is that I’m not a fan of how Ruocchio handled the frame story of old Hadrian recounting his life. For my taste, his thoughts and observations intrude far too frequently on the events we’re reading about – disconnecting me from the immediacy and emotion of them. For example, old Hadrian spoils a character death before it happens.
To end on a positive, I love how short the chapters are – these 250,000-word book has close to eighty of them. The ending is contrived, but I understand why Ruocchio did it and I’m excited to start book two! From what I’ve heard, Ruocchio improves significantly as a writer throughout the series, and there’s nothing I disliked in Empire of Silence that can’t be fixed.
If you’re interested in more sci-fi recommendations, check out my review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons!
★ ★ ★
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