BOOK REVIEW: The Lesser Devil and Other Stories, by Christopher Ruocchio

lesser devil.jpg

Publisher: Planet 9 Press

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 459

Publication Date: 21/09/2021

Verdict: 5/5

 

Everyone knows the tale of Hadrian Marlow. But what of his brother Crispin, left to continue the family name on Delos? And what of the other men and women who populate the Sollan Empire? Here at last are their stories . . .

If there are two things I love, it’s sprawling spacer operatic universes and collections of short stories set in a single setting. Throw in my general admiration of Christopher Ruocchio’s work, and The Lesser Devil and Other Stories was always going to be a winner. This book is about half stories I’ve read before, and half new. All but one have appeared in various anthologies over the past few years, while the last was a new piece for a digital exclusive short story collection released earlier this year. For a while, it looked as though there’d be a lengthy wait for that story to see print, but thanks to Anderida Books (my current go-to for exclusive and signed editions) The Lesser Devil and Other Stories is here to tide me over until next year’s release of Kingdoms of Death, happily averting a Sun Eater-free year. This edition is limited to a few hundred, so if you want to pick it up, I suggest you act quickly.

The first half of this book is the short novel The Lesser Devil, which I have reviewed here. Everything I had to say back then still stands, and it holds up on a reread. The only thing missing is the glossary and dramatist personae from the original paperback release. You’ll be fine without these, but they do help expand and make sense of the Sollan Empire. Also rereads are ‘Not Made for Us’, from the Star Destroyers anthology, and ‘The Parliament of Owls’, which first appeared in Space Pioneers.  The final story I was already familiar with was ‘The Duellist,’ which I have heard the audio original of on the Simultaneous Times podcast. Since I prefer print to audio, I’m glad to have it bundled together with the rest. It saves me having to search through endless anthologies when I’m looking for Sun Eater content. Of course, there are already more stories out then than are gathered here, so fingers are firmly crossed for a second volume in the not-too-distant future.

Two of the stories here, ‘The Demons of Arae’ and ‘The Night Captain’ feature Hadrian Marlowe, and fill in gaps between the main novels of the series. Howling Dark  and Demon in White both mention events that happen off the page, and it’s nice to see those references filled out in a bit more detail. There are still centuries of Hadrian’s life left unexplored, of course, so Hadrian’s mystique remains preserved. ‘The Night Captain’ is the first time we see Hadrian from someone else’s perspective, which marks a significant point for the series, showing that there is more to Hadrian’s story than his words alone.

Doubling down on that theme is ‘The Pits of Emesh,’ which provides a rather different account of Hadrian’s time as a gladiator to the one he himself tells. Framed as a true account, but with a rather passive aggressive narrator, this piece scores highly with me for the way it interrogates the natural assumption that a first-person narrative is the true version of events. While I don’t think this one is wholly accurate (in as much as any work of fiction can be) it helps solidify the image of Hadrian as a quasi-mythic figure within the Empire. A man whose legend has outgrown him. The way Ruocchio frames and structures his story has fascinated me from the very first page, and ‘The Pits of Emesh’ adds yet another thread to an ever-growing and incredibly engaging tapestry.

This fairly expensive hardback is certainly intended for people already in love with the Sun Eater series. But the stories themselves are all incredibly accessible, and provide glimpses of one of modern science fiction’s most intricate universes.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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