BOOK REVIEW: Howling Dark, by Christopher Ruocchio

Spoilers for Empire of Silence-

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Publisher: Gollancz

Series: The Sun Eater (#2)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 656

Publication Date: 18/07/2019

Verdict: 5/5

Hadrian Marlowe has spent half a century searching for a way to make peace with the Cielcin. When he finds a way to the lost world of Vorgossos, it could be the answer he needs. Or it could lead him to question everything he thought he knew . . .

Christopher Ruocchio’s debut Empire of Silence was always going to be a hard act to follow. For me personally, it hit every note I want in my SF. Ancient sprawling empires, thickly layered worldbuilding, a protagonist you can root for even if he might not be the hero, aliens who are actually alien. It was pitch-perfect all the way through. So good in fact, that I left the sequel sitting by my window for several months, not wanting to open it in case it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Reader, I need not have worried. Howling Dark is easily on the same level as its predecessor. But it’s also a very different book. And that’s why it’s so successful. Rather than resting on his laurels, Ruocchio continues to push boundaries, mixing genres and creating something genuinely new in the process. Quite simply, there is no other series like this.

At the beginning of Empire of Silence, Hadrian introduces himself as the man who exterminated the Ceilcin race. You’d expect this to perhaps rob his quest for peace of some of its tension, but political thriller is not what the book aims for. Howling Dark, even more than what came before, reads like an epic tragedy. There’s a weight to every event, the feeling of significance even when it could be inconsequential. It’s a book that requires focus and examination, but never to the point that it stops being fun to read. Ruocchio’s prose calls back to another age, but it never feels archaic or dated. The fact that Hadrian Marlowe’s memoire exists as an in-universe text only makes it better. Everything from plot to glossary build the world further.

And what a world it is. From the Dune-esque Gothic aesthetic of the Sollan Empire, Hadrian’s travels take him further into space. Marlowe’s Red Company is drawn from across human nations, showing a glimpse of life beyond Imperial borders. References are made to the adventures they’ve had between books, and while there is clearly a lot of ground covered (hopefully to one day be seen on page), it never feels like we’re missing out on something important. At least, I hope not. Where we spend more time is among the Extrasolarians. Barbarians in the Empire’s eyes, who have polluted their bodies with cybernetics. There’s a tangible cyberpunk feel to a lot of the encounters, with holographic advertising and humanform robots. Yet the transition between genres is never jarring. It’s not a different universe, just a different world within the same universe.

Then of course, we get our first proper look at the Ceilcin. Not just a lone prisoner as in Empire of Silence, but a full civilisation of them. I won’t go into too much detail – some things are better discovered for yourself – but Ruocchio has created an alien threat that is both absolutely alien and genuinely threatening. Even though we know how the story ends, seeing this key point of the journey is as gripping as anything else I’ve read or seen. Prince Aranata and their kin are a remarkable creature, and I very much hope we get to spend more time in their world before Hadrian wipes them from existence.

But it’s not just space that Hadrian explores. Just as in Empire of SilenceHowling Dark peels back layers of history to reveal more of how the Sollan Empire came to be. For me, this was one of the highlights. Hadrian’s encounter with Brethren in particular is filled with answers about questions I wasn’t sure I was asking, while also prompting more. Yes, I think my theory about the Mericanii was on the right track, but now I have more questions than ever about the Quiet, about the Empire, about everything.

The Sun Eater series is now two books out of a planned five. I cannot see how Ruocchio intends to wrap up everything in so short a span. In fact, I suspect he doesn’t. But even if there are mysteries left at the end, I intend to read everything of this universe I can get my hands on. If you enjoyed Empire of Silence, you will love Howling Dark. And if you haven’t read it yet, don’t leave things as long as I did. Get a copy and crack it open. You won’t regret it.

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