HOWLING DARK by Christopher Ruocchio (Book Review)
‘The world is filled with monsters: dragons in the wilderness, serpents in the garden. We must become monsters to fight them. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never really had to fight for anything.’
Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio is the second book in the Sun Eater series. This sequel continues our main protagonist Hadrian Marlowe’s journey across the galaxy, which was established in the first book, Empire of Silence, and takes it to extraordinary heights.
Our story begins with a time jump. 48 years have passed since the events of the first book. During this time Hadrian has been scouring the galaxy with his comrades in search of the alien race, Cielcin, who are the cause of the devastating annihilation of many worlds. His sole mission is to find the planet Vorgossos, which the aliens are rumoured to inhabit, and make a peace treaty with them. So far he has been unsuccessful; that is, until he becomes aware of a man who may finally give him an indication of where this fabled planet might be found. In Howling Dark, the stakes are raised, and failure could cost millions of lives.
Let me start off by saying a little about what I loved from the first book, Empire of Silence. It was an ambitious debut to say the least. The book included some fantastic well fleshed-out world building, with various creatures and aliens represented. Ruocchio also incorporated a fantastic literary first person narration with Hadrian’s character, which showed him to be naive and flawed, but also very endearing. In Howling Dark, the profound prose continues, the narrative style is still lyrical, it flows seamlessly, and is often melodramatic, but this suits Hadrian’s character perfectly. I know that some readers may find the writing style too ‘flowery’, but keep in mind that Hadrian is an aristocrat, therefore this style does serve a purpose.
I truly loved Hadrian’s voice, although at times he is represented as stubborn and immature. His narration reflects on events from his life from an older perspective; his voice is often melancholic as he gives the reader a full account of his mistakes, and all the regrets he now has. In Howling Dark, lets just say, Hadrian has a lot of regrets.
‘Here I was, past the end of the world. Chasing a place out of legends on the word of a creature out of nightmare. I’d become like the mad pirates of Old Earth, drunk on stories of the golden city and the waters of life. Like those pirates, I’d lost much of what I had in pursuit of my goal…’
Now, let me discuss the world building. This book is much darker than its predecessor, which I entirely welcomed. The worlds which are explored in the book are that bit more sinister, and quite frankly much more bizarre. Once again, Ruocchio incorporates various alien creatures, some of which are downright monstrous. To name but a few, we have: Cielcin, which are just as threatening as ever; Exhalted, who come in many forms; SOMs, which are basically slaves, even sexbots; and the often very creepy Homunculus. The way Howling Dark defines all these different species as having their own culture, own language, religion, and their own set of characteristics, enriches the story tenfold.
However, unfortunately I did have quite an issue with the pacing in this book. One of my personal irritations is when characters argue for prolonged lengths of time. Now, I don’t mind banter; in fact, that’s one thing I look for in anything I read. I also don’t mind the occasional squabble; I enjoy seeing two opposing views. I just felt that in Howling Dark, the first 200 plus pages entailed a fair amount of the characters aimlessly bickering, which had the effect of stalling the plot. This in turn made those beginning chapters far too slow for my personal taste and I honestly struggled to become fully immersed. I think this was because the overall arc of the story – Hadrian finding the Cielcin race – was so fascinating to me, I just wanted them to proceed with that journey quickly, rather than arguing about giving up the mission. I also felt this created too many scenes of the characters bound on a spaceship, and again this is something that I generally don’t enjoy. I much prefer the scenes where a new world is explored, and we get to see its myriad wonders.
Having said that, the ending of this book did thankfully turn things around for me, and in the best possible way, because the finale was phenomenal! My favourite scene was this brilliant action sequence that involves Hadrian and Valka fending off a spider-like Exhalted creature, which then leads to an awesome interaction with an AI, which then leads to… okay, okay, no spoilers! Let’s just say from then on the book reaches its climax with a bang! (Erm… yeah, you know what I mean!) In all seriousness though, Ruocchio sophisticatedly brings together the philosophical ideas on morality, cultural differences between the conflicting races, language barriers – with a play on nuances – and a whole heap of action, to build many thrilling moments.
Overall, although I found Howling Dark much slower than the first book, this is still a worthy sequel that by the end elevates the entire story. If you like your sci-fi broad in scope, if you’re a fan of lyrical prose, and you want to see some freaky alien monsters, then read this series.
Arc provided by Gollancz in exchange for an honest review.