When I first saw this novel mentioned by one of my fellow bloggers I was intrigued by the story but did not follow immediately on the desire to read it, so that when I recently went back to look for it I discovered that the series now amounts to four published novels, with a fifth slated to come out by the end of the year (not to mention a few novellas filling out some narrative corners). It might be enough to cool the enthusiasm of anyone with an already over-bloated TBR, yet I choose to pursue my initial interest in the story, and now I’m certainly glad I did.
The series takes place some 20.000 years in the far future, when humanity has moved out into the stars creating the Sollan Empire, ruled according to a strict class system: Hadrian Marlowe is the protagonist of the saga and at the very start of the novel, written as Hadrian’s memoir, we learn that to remove the menace of the alien Cielcin, with whom humans had been at war for centuries, he destroyed a sun, and in so doing he obliterated both the Cielcin and billions of humans as well. In his youth, as the eldest son of the Marlowe family (lesser nobility from the planet Delos whose uranium mining facilities empowered them with notable financial clout) Hadrian had some difficulties in accepting his role, being gifted with scholarly inclinations and an impulsive character, neither of which sat well with his cold and ruthless father. When an incident threatened his public image, Hadrian was to be replaced as heir by his younger brother Crispin, and sent to the Chantry, the Empire’s religious power worshipping the memory of lost Earth and professing a strict dogma enforced through methods resembling those of the Spanish Inquisition. Trying to evade a fate he found abhorrent, Hadrian ended up on the planet of Emesh, alone, penniless and unable to reveal his identity for fear of being forcibly sent to the Chantry: to survive he entered the brutal gladiatorial games of the Colosso, where a chance encounter with a Cielcin prisoner launched him on the path that would turn him into the man who destroyed a sun…
This is a very compressed synopsis for a novel depicting the early years of a quite eventful life, of which Empire of Silence is only the first part: there is a great deal to parse in this first book of the saga, which proved to be a compelling read despite a few setbacks that can be easily attributed to the novel being a debut work – and as such it’s still a very well crafted one, its problems easily forgiven and forgotten in the engaging tale of Hadrian Marlowe’s journey from riches to rags to… whatever will come along the way. If at times the narrative loses its momentum, stalled by what might feel like an excessive focus on details or inner musings, it’s understandable that the author wanted to give his readers a full immersion in the world he created and let himself be swayed by maybe too much enthusiasm. Still, those moments were not enough to drive me away, because I have to admit that with such a powerful “hook” as the knowledge of Hadrian’s future, the exploration of his past becomes compelling and compulsory.
The world building is fascinating: the empire is ruled by a feudal system that borrows many elements from the Roman Empire, even employing many of its terms and some of its customs like the gladiatorial games in the Colosso, which amuse the nobility and enthrall the populace according to the age-old rule of panem et circenses. The few alien races encountered during humanity’s expansion have been enslaved and are used either as workforce or fodder for the games in the Colosso, any consideration for their rights smothered by the Chantry’s ruthless doctrine and the abject fear they inspire. The ruling classes – or palatines – enjoy genetic enhancements which confer them improved physiques and a longer life-span, the physical differences setting them apart from the rest of the populace just as much as their social station does. It’s an intriguing society we see depicted in this series, one where such technological advancement as genetic engineering go hand in hand with a deep loathing for machines and computers, which is enforced by the Chantry under the stigma of heresy.
The alien Cielcin are presented as equally intriguing, their motives and actions filtered through the wartime propaganda so that readers are left to wonder if they are truly the proverbial monsters or if there is more to their quest than the simple need for expansion: the protracted meetings between Hadrian and a captured Cielcin officer – one of the most harrowing segments of the story, due to the descriptions of callous torture inflicted by Chantry interrogators – seem to lead toward a different interpretation, which of course begs the question about Hadrian’s act of genocide disclosed at the very start of the novel.
As Hadrian describes the background in which his life takes place, he also proceeds in revealing himself with little or no attempt at sugarcoating: he freely shares his triumphs and his mistakes, the impulsive choices which often tend to land him in a situation that’s worse than the one he was trying to escape, his capacity for compassion and the mad urges that put him in danger more than once. There were times when I felt like slapping some sense into him, often forgetting that – at this point in the story – he’s still relatively young and therefore prone to mistakes, not to mention a victim of his upbringing and the cold environment in which he grew up, whose influence we learn by contrast once Hadrian establishes a rapport with his fellow arena fighters:
They cared because they chose to, and they did so with a gruff but quiet indelicacy that propped me up in my despair and whispered that this was what it was to have a family.
Being aware from the beginning of Hadrian’s fate might rob the reading journey of some surprises – we know that any danger he faces will not be a mortal one, for example – but on the other hand we are keenly curious to learn how such an epilogue will come to be, and that is the main attraction of this saga. The first book ends with the start of what promises to be an adventurous voyage of discovery, and while not being a dreaded cliffhanger, it left me anxious to know what kind of challenges the protagonist will face in the next installment. And luckily for me, I will not have to wait long to discover it 🙂