BOOK REVIEW: Kingdoms of Death, by Christopher Ruocchio

Rating: 5 out of 5.
  • Book Four of The Sun Eater
  • Published by Head of Zeus on 22nd March 2022
  • A grand space opera
  • 501 pages

For almost a century, Hadrian Marlowe has languished under house arrest as punishment for his ‘miracle’ at Berenike. But with the Cielcin tearing across the stars, the Sollan Empire must once more call upon the aid of its darkest knight . . .

They say no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and right now one of publishing’s enemies is paper supply issues. The effect of this on the Sun Eater series is that the fourth book has now become the fourth and fifth, and that the UK editions are now published by Head of Zeus. Honestly, the transition has been seamless. Not only have Head of Zeus continued with the same cover styles and overall design, but Kingdoms of Death doesn’t feel like half a book. It’s as complete a tale as any previous Sun Eater novel. If the result of paper shortages is that we end up with more books of this quality, then I’m tempted to say it’s not such a bad thing after all.

As with previous books in the series, Kingdoms of Death picks up some time after the last one, with Hadrian once again facing a situation that forces him to confront both enemies and his own beliefs. This book takes Hadrian beyond the borders of the Empire, and into the dystopian depths of the Lothrian Commonwealth. It’s no secret that I’ll praise most things Christopher Ruocchio writes, but he really does deserve extra credit for writing a dystopia that is actually chilling. Too often, dystopias are either ludicrously over the top, or just not actually that bad. The Lothrians and their controlled society are not only unsettling, they’re also plausible. The way that they control not only the lifestyles of their people, but even the language they speak, is remarkably well pulled-off. Of course, all this does make for a particularly depressing opening to the book, but then Sun Eater is a tragedy. If you’re an emotional reader, this book could well break your heart. And wouldn’t you know it – the Commonwealth is the sunny uplands compared to what we see once the Cielcin step onto the page.

Kingdoms of Death delves deeper into the Cielcin than any previous offering. So far in the series, Ruocchio’s style has been more in line with vague and evocative allusions rather than clear-cut answers, but in this fourth book we finally get some more concrete answers. The history of the Cielcin is laid bare for us, and while the history presented is one open to interpretation, it explains so much about Cielcin behaviour. The Cielcin are among my favourite literary aliens, planting themselves firmly in the uncanny valley of human enough to be understandable, but utterly incomprehensible in their reasoning. Like us, but not like us. We’ve had brief encounters with Cielcin Princes before, but now we get an up close and personal meeting with Cielcin leader Syriani Dorayaica. Dorayaica is a fantastic villain, and it is one of the best characters in a series stuffed with memorable faces. A creature almost charming one moment, and utterly monstrous the next.

There are two aspects that separate Sun Eater from other space operas and they’re easy to fold into one. The first is Ruocchio’s prose. Normally, I prefer prose that is almost invisible, providing a window to the story rather than calling attention to itself. Ruocchio’s prose is at the other end of that spectrum. It’s writing I could lose myself in, but while it is writing I notice, it never detracts from the story being told. Far from it. Because as well as action, and emotion, and the wonders of science fiction, what Ruocchio brings to the table that few others do, is philosophy. Without trying to sound pretentious, this is space opera for the thinking reader. It is full of questions and moral quandaries that go beyond entertainment, and make you stop and think. Never sacrificing the story, but adding ever more intriguing layers on top.

I could squeal with joy endlessly about Kingdoms of Death and the Sun Eater universe as a whole. But at the end of the day, all I can really do is urge you to read it for yourself. I can only hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Did you enjoy this book? If so, you might also like:
The Lesser Devil and Other Stories, by Christopher Ruocchio
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
Shadow and Claw, by Gene Wolfe

Published by Alex Hormann

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

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