In short, Empire of Silence is about a beginning, and about a boy becoming a man - the beginnings of a life of Hadrian Marlowe. Sun-killer. Hero. Villain. Collossus of his age. In this instance, however, a callow boy with a penchant for smart remarks and the ability to fall directly from the frying pan into the fire.
Marlowe lives in the Empire, a galaxy-spanning entity whose organisation holds more than a shade of the Roman Empire. Mostly-hereditary aristocracies, with gene complexes which keep them alive for centuries, rule over planets of serfs, their power counterbalanced by that of the Chantry, a religious organisation with a hostile attitude to other creeds and other species, and a tight hold over the exercise of most advanced technology. In this sprawling cultural hegemony of a thousand terraformed worlds, Marlowe is the scion of a minor aristocratic family, albeit one with connections.
He's smart, and dreams of exploring the universe outside of the known; but a sense of fairness and compassion sits uncomfortably with the sort of ruthlessness one needs to rule, or to kill. Things rather quickly go wrong, and we get to see what sort of man Had will become, as he rises from the ashes of his disappointments. He's an engaging character, to be sure, with an acidic sense of self-awareness which refuses to skip over his mistakes or failures, even the bloody ones. If things don't always go his way, Hadrian's efforts to be a better person are always on point, and empathising with his struggles against a family and a system which seeks to trap him in place, is easy. The prose which apparently rolls off his pen is a precision instrument - by turns humorous, razor-cut incisive, and thoughtful. There's some examination of what makes the nature of a man, digressions on Marcus Aurelius sandwiched between bloodied blades and baffling aliens.
Hadrian is backed on his journey by an ensemble cast; it’s them I’d like to see more of. We’re restricted to one view, by virtue of seeing through Hadrian’s eyes, but where Hadrian is complex, his views of others seem less so. His father is a ruthless tyrant, his brother, broadly, drawn to action, to violence. Quirks of compassion there hint at something more, and it’s something I’d like to see. His mother carries a certain subtlety in her, in motivations for helping and hurting, and if they’re implicit, they nonetheless give her a lioness roar in her appearances on the page. The companions Hadrian acquires on his journey, by contrast, don’t reveal enough of themselves, of their raw emotional state, to really come alive. There’s enough there to give them a spark, to make them believable foils for Hadrian and his escapades – but I would have loved to see more; that said, the book is hefty as it is.
The world-building is top-class. It owes a lot to classical structures, to be sure, but incorporates them into a more futuristic structure. What results is a galactic system of government, a vast, ungovernable extra-solar bureaucracy, with its own religion, social mores and expectations. There’s a sense of events happening, not only in the fictional history, but off to one side of the main thrust of the narrative as well. It’s a living, breathing space – one that comes alive as the reader turns the pages. It may not be the nicest place one might visit, but the grit and grime, the authority, the abuse, the sparks of compassion all speak to the vivid humanity on display.
This is a biography, nominally, the plot the story of Hadrian's rise (or fall, depending on how you look at it). But there's a lot going on in here. Friendships between social castes. Arena bouts to the death. Political struggles between government and church. Duels between men and monsters. Or possibly monsters and other monsters - it's hard to say. This is a book filled with grandeur and blood, binding the fate of empires into the struggle for one man's soul, as he tries to work out who he is, and what he wants.
All of this is a polite way of saying I really enjoyed Empire Of Silence; it's a sprawling epic, with the lens of one perspective to keep it focused; there's legions, there's cryptic xenoarchaeology, there's discussion of opression and systems which define and break the people within them. There's swords, and knights, and carnivorous aliens. Starships and romance, of a sort, ruminations on power and blood on knives; it's great fun, and I'm looking forward to hearing more from Hadrian Marlowe's adventures.