The Blurb On The Back:
Hadrian Marlowe, privileged first son of a Duke was destined for greatness and he has become a legend. The Sun-Slayer. The Breaker of Sieges. The Crusher of Civilisations. His is a story which defined the course of worlds.
This novel is not that story.
This is Hadrian’s story told in his own words. Of being passed over by his father for rule in favour of his younger brother, and sent to a military academy against his wishes. Of being kidnapped in transit to that planet and sold into slavery and of how he clawed his way back into the dangers and opportunities of politics …
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
19-year-old Hadrian Marlowe has it all. As the eldest son and presumed heir of Lord Alistair Marlowe, Archon of Meidua Prefecture (the location of one of the Empire’s largest sources of uranium) and Lady Liliana Kephalos-Marlowe (daughter of the Duchess of Delos and a distant cousin to the Emperor), he lives a life of privilege – educated by the best scholiasts, taught to wield fearsome high energy swords and proficient in numerous languages. Even so, he’s shocked when it becomes apparent that his father shares his uncertainty and starts locking him out of the key elements of rule in favour of his 15-year-old younger brother, the thuggish and dim Crispin. Worse, his father is determined to send Hadrian to study at the Holy Terran Chancery – the Empire’s official state religion, dedicated to the lost planet of Earth, and which controls the use of bodily technology and can torture and kill in furtherance of its own aims – because having a son in the church will improve the family’s political position.
Determined to avoid his fate, Hadrian arranges to be smuggled off planet and to the scholiast training academy but something happens while he’s in a fugue crèche en route and he awakes to find himself on the desert planet of Borosevo. Abandoned and penniless, he finds himself having to take desperate measures to survive and what he experiences will change his life and the fortunes of the Empire forever …
Christopher Ruocchio’s epic SF novel (the first in a series) has some interesting world building and a great sense of scale but the plot is far too predictable (hindered by the fact that Hadrian is writing his own memoir, which robs the book of any sense of jeopardy), the pacing is tortuously slow, Hadrian makes dumb decision for no good reason and the female characters painfully underdeveloped such that I won’t be reading on.
My main problem with the book stems from Ruocchio’s decision to structure it as Hadrian’s autobiography telling the real story of his rise and his subsequent exploits. This means that every scene where Hadrian is supposedly facing a life-threatening situation is robbed of any tension because you immediately know that he’s survived because he’s writing about it centuries in the future. The other problem with this decision though is that Hadrian drops a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing about characters and situations, so that you’re waiting for the twist or development before it happens, which make the story far too predictable and robs it of entertainment value while also ensuring that the pace just plods along interminably.
This is all made worse by the fact that for such a highly educated young man, who’s had the opportunity to observe his father and his court as well as the people operating within it, he’s utterly stupid when it comes to politics and the motivations of the powerful (an issue heightened by how often circumstance or events conspire to get Hadrian out of entirely his own making). He seems surprised when people double cross him – even after he’s lived on Borosevo for years and has seen what people are willing to do to stay ahead – and I was irritated by what comes across as self-pity even as other people pay the price for his mistakes. His naivety is particularly annoying when it comes to the Cielcin and the attitude of his people towards them and I found the scenes where he tries to persuade his people to open peace talks to be weak and unconvincing. This is a shame because I did enjoy the emphasis that Ruocchio places on Hadrian’s language abilities, which emphasise how diverse humanity has become in its colonisation of space and how uneasy the various elements exist with each other.
I did like the world building in the book. Although Ruocchio has chosen to base the Empire on a mix of Roman and medieval elements (think authoritarian regime supported by a blood thirsty, Catholic style church) the different cultures within the empire broadly work well with each other, I liked the way he used the old trope of the disappeared superior ancient civilisation and he has clearly put a lot of thought into the history and politics involved, even if I found him heavy-handed in how this information comes across. However given some of the revelations about the Cicelin towards the end of the book, I really wasn’t sure what the basis of the war between them and humanity was – Ruocchio seems to suggest that there may be a mistake or failure to communicate at the heart of it that’s fuelled by the Chancery’s xenophobia and desire for blood but to be honest, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
The supporting characters are at best very broadly drawn and at worst little more than caricatures (most notably Crispin but also Hadrian’s parents and Gilliam – a Chancery chanter who Ruocchio offensively decides to make a misshapen dwarf just so we know he’s twisted and evil). I found the female characters to be underdrawn – mainly they serve as love interests to Hadrian and the most developed is Valka, an archaeologist on Borosevo to check out the ruins left by an ancient civilisation, as she has agency and stands up to Hadrian even if she inevitably helps him against her better judgement.
Ultimately there just isn’t enough here for me to want to read on, although I might check out Ruocchio’s other work.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.