Christopher Ruocchio’s début science fiction epic is a very ambitious work and I have mixed feelings about it. I would give it a baseline 3,5/5 stars, upped to 4 for his handling of linguistic and cultural estrangement. I agree with many readers that the novel is very intertextual, containing many elements that parallel key features of its influences and predecessors. If in some respects it is derivative at least it is ambitiously multi-derivative, combining such great models as DUNE, THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER (and BOOK OF THE NEW SUN in general), ENDER’S GAME, and HYPERION CANTOS.
Some structural features of the world-building may seem hard to swallow, such as the realistic possibility of a coherent empire despite the decades needed to travel between stars. This “time debt” concept is equally integral to Simmons’ saga without plunging the political structure into incoherence, and Ruocchio compensates this by positing the great longevity of the palatine ruling cast.
The first part of the book may seem long-winded and our narrator Hadrian Marlowe is self-indulgent, but there is no Chekov’s Gun Syndrome, as everything that is featured in this first part is taken up again effectively in the last third of the book and contributes integrally to the unfolding of the story.
Similarly, beginning with the end, in the melodramatic depiction of himself as Xenocide and sun murderer, does not spoil the plot for me, but awakens an interest in what begins as a fairly dull family intrigue. We want to follow the Bildungsroman to see how Hadrian moves from oedipal patheticness to cosmic pathos.
The attempt to make us feel empathy for the Cielcin while underlining their alienness is original and well handled, as were the presentations of the various existential-political “cages” in which the narrator was confined.
The mystery of the alien “Quiet” (their mysterious black habitats are another callback to HYPERION) and the desire to see more of Hadrian’s interactions with the alien Cielcin are enough to make me want to read the sequels, despite my mixed feelings about the trope-filled underlying framework and the only half-likeable protagonist.
This is fusion speculative fiction, with the emphasis sometimes falling more on “fusion” than on the speculation, but often enough it is the speculative element that dominates.
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