Four years after he launched his Sun Eater series of epic space fantasy novels with 2018’s Empire Of Silence, writer Christopher Ruocchio is preparing to bring it to a close with the penultimate installment, Ashes Of Man (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, the ever prolific Ruocchio discusses this second-to-last novel, as well as why it won’t be the second-to-last book.
We did some background on the Sun Eater series a few months ago, when I interviewed you about the fourth novel, Kingdoms Of Death, so I want to just dive straight into the new novel, Ashes Of Man. What is Ashes about, and when does it take place in relation to both our time and the other Sun Eater novels, especially Kingdoms?
Ashes Of Man is the fifth main novel in the Sun Eater series (there are a couple novellas that are non-essential reading as well). It’s set about 8 hours after the end of Kingdoms, the shortest gap between Sun Eater novels by far.
The series as a whole, however, is set about twenty thousand years into our future, in a time when mankind has settled about a third of the galactic volume. Most of that known universe is under the dominion of the Sollan Empire, a quasi-feudal Romano-Byzantine-esque state beset by a horde of alien invaders called the Cielcin. Our hero is Hadrian Marlowe, a nobleman who has been reluctantly thrust into the middle of this conflict. Having recently survived a crushing defeat at the hands of the Cielcin high king, Hadrian must collect himself and steel his resolve for another fight…or not. You’ll have to see.
Where did you get the idea for Ashes Of Man? What inspired it?
Cold necessity. At five books into the series, the cart more or less drives itself, inspirationally speaking, but with this book that was doubly true. The rising paper costs, precipitated by supply chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic, imposed a cap on the length of my books, and so the 320K word original draft for Kingdoms Of Death I turned in was split in half, with the first part becoming the 200K-word final draft of Kingdoms, and the second half growing into this: the 195K-word Ashes Of Man.
Ashes Of Man is the penultimate book of the saga. Which is usually when things go to shit. Do things go to shit in Ashes? Or even more to shit than they’ve been going for Hadrian? Because this all started with things going to shit for that guy.
Oh, I’d say we’ve hit the peripeteia already. Things went very, very badly in Kingdoms Of Death, and while I can’t say that Ashes Of Man offers much by way of a reprieve, it is perhaps less unrelenting grim than the previous volume. Hadrian’s life is still terribly difficult and sad, I’m sorry to report, but there’s always been light underneath the dark — that’s sort of the point of the series. I won’t promise this book won’t kick my dear readers in the teeth once or twice, but I think there’s some catharsis here for those who know how to find it.
All of the Sun Eater novels have been sci-fi space fantasy stories, but some have encompassed other genres. The second book, Empire Of Silence, was a bit of a Gothic novel, for instance, while the third, Demon In White, was something of a political thriller. Are there any other genres at work in Ashes Of Man?
I’m not sure what to call it, but Ashes Of Man is in many ways the most personal of the series so far. Hadrian has been through a lot, and a goodly portion of this book is set aside to deal with the consequences — personal and otherwise — of all that he’s been through.
But at the same time, it’s got elements of the political thriller back in play again (I’d say it has more in common with Demon In White than any of its predecessors), though I also think as the series continues, the books are becoming more like themselves than they are like anything else. The mix is pretty dialed-in, if that makes sense.
Moving on to the always popular questions about influences, are there any writers, or particular stories, that had a big influence on Ashes Of Man but not on any of the other Sun Eater books?
As above, I’d say the mix is pretty much locked in at this point. Ashes Of Man is pure Sun Eater. The Frank Herbert influence remains, and the Gene Wolfe is strong as ever. Possibly this is the book which is thematically closest to Tolkien’s work, but that’s not a new influence, either. The Sun Eater‘s feel and style is pretty established at this point, I reckon. Long time readers of the series will feel right at home.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of them have a particular big influence on Ashes Of Man?
Not in any specific sense. I’ve talked before about how growing up I was heavily influenced by Japanese RPGs, games like Lost Odyssey, Baten Kaitos, and the Tales series (I was never a Final Fantasy man, before anyone wonders why I failed to list it). Those sorts of game tend to have a much looser approach to genre, with elements of science fiction and fantasy — considered increasingly separate by today’s taxonomy-obsessed nerd culture — blended pretty much as a matter of course. But I wouldn’t say there’s a specific influence from that quarter, more that my personal history as someone who played a lot of those games has given me a bit of a different attitude about genre conventions and storytelling in general.
You’ve had the ending of this series in mind for a while. But how much of what’s left do you have figured out? Like, do you have the entire thing plotted out, just outlined, a vague thought in the back of your mind…?
At this point, everything’s more or less figured out. I’ve got a little adjusting I need to do to my outline, as new wrinkles appear during every writing process, but with Book Six being the final volume and me about 100,000 words into writing it, the outline is was done up a while ago and it’s really just a matter of doing the work. I’ve always had a rough sketch of the whole series, though I’ve elaborated on and revised it as the years have rolled by.
When it comes time to write each book, I sit down and spend about a month writing an outline, which I think of a low-resolution first draft. These things are huge, the Book Six one is about 50,000 words long, which is nearly the length of the first Harry Potter book. I read over them chapter-by-chapter as I’m doing the writing, but the outline lets me get the whats and whens and wherefores of every scene worked out before I have to write them, and so my task is only to write when the writing comes. I think a lot of writer’s block has a lot to do with failure-to-plan, and so the outline allows me to plan my moves without the added pressure of needing to write every line perfectly. By the time I get to the writing, I can focus on sentence structure and style, and not worry about what I’m trying to convey, since that was done well in advance.
Does “Book Six” have a name yet?
No title or date yet. I have a title, but it’s not finalized.
And what are the odds that it’ll be split in two as well?
That is looking unlikely. The paper situation, while still dire, is not like it was.
As is often the case with you, Ashes Of Man is not your only new book. You released a Sun Eater novella called Queen Amid Ashes in June, as well a collection of Sun Eater short stories called Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 2, and you co-edited two recent short story anthologies: Time Troopers with Hank Davis, which came out in April, and Worlds Long Lost with Sean C.W. Korsgaard, which came out last week. Did no one tell you that you were supposed to spend the pandemic baking bread and playing Animal Crossing?
Funnily enough, there was plenty of bread baking. Cookery has become my hobby since my previous hobby, writing, became work. I try to keep busy. We writers have a rough trade. It takes months to write a novel, and so realistically I can only do one or two a year, so the shorter stuff has to happen if I’m to keep the attention of my readers. The anthologies were a feature of my former day job as Junior Editor for Baen Books, and I don’t think I’ll be doing any more of them for the foreseeable future, though I’ll still be writing short stories in support of my new releases.
As for Animal Crossing…man, I confess I’ve never been a fan. I’m more a Legend Of Zelda kinda guy — if we’re talking Nintendo tentpole franchises.
That’s okay, I’m more of a Donkey Kong Country man myself. Anyway, we did an interview about Time Troopers when it came out, but real quick, what is it and and Worlds Long Lost about?
Time Troopers is a collection of military and military-adjacent time travel stories, mostly reprints of classic tales from writers like Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein, though there are a handful of original stories, including one by me.
Worlds Long Lost is an anthology of all-original xeno-archaeology stories, so tales of ancient alien ruins, lost civilizations, that sort of thing.
And then Queen Amid Ashes, what is that novella about, and when in relation to the other Sun Eater novels does it take place?
Queen Amid Ashes is set more or less directly after the events of Howling Dark, which is the second book in the main series. It follows Hadrian — the main character from the larger series — in his first assignment as an Imperial knight. He’s just won a great victory, and liberated the planet Thagura from the alien Cielcin, who had besieged the planet for years, harvesting its people. The story is about the messy aftermath of that siege, the ugliness of post-war clean-up, and pits Hadrian against a very different sort of antagonist.
In the Worlds Long Lost Q&A, you said Queen Amid Ashes had originally appeared in the anthology Sword & Planet that you edited, but that you “remastered it.” What exactly did you do to it?
I added a chapter, for starters. I was worried it was too short to be given a standalone release, so I wanted to add a bit to it.
Beyond that, I simply gave the book another line edit. I went back through sentence-by-sentence and fixed errors, but also rewrote passages for flow and impact. Nothing fancy.
As for Tales Of The Sun Eater, Vol. 2, that collection, like Vol. 1, was a digital-only affair. Has there been any discussion of releasing them, either individually or collectively, as physical books? Y’know, for those of us who like that sort of thing.
Oh, certainly. The plan is to release an omnibus collection of all the short stories once there are enough short stories to release an omnibus of. I expect that by the time Book Six hits shelves in the next year or so, that’ll be ready to go. The little eBook-only collections were sort of a compromise, that way folks could read the stories now and cheaply, but the omnibus — when it comes — will still be special, since it will be the first time all those stories were wrapped up in print.
Going back to Ashes Of Man, is there anything else you think people need to know about it?
Only that folks who felt really kidney-punched by the last novel will, I think, find that Ashes Of Man is closer in terms of tone and content to Demon In White. We’re back with the Imperials, back with court intrigue and dynastic wrangling, and further away from the Cielcin and their ugliness. That’s not to say there aren’t a few dark turns here and there — it wouldn’t be Sun Eater story without them — but I don’t think this is so emotionally draining a read as the previous volume.
Finally, given that Ashes Of Man is the fifth Sun Eater novel, and ninth book overall, people might want a break from all the dark and epic space fantasy. If so, what fun, fast reading, and maybe even funny sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that one?
Man, you’re asking the wrong guy. I don’t so much go in for comedy in my reading life — to the shock of perhaps no one. I’m a great fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, which are certainly fun and fast, but they can get pretty dire in places, despite the great characters (and Lois is the best at character, just the best). More recently, D.J. Butler put out a book called Abbott In Darkness, which — while not an outright comedy — is a rather wholesome family story of the sort that science fiction so rarely engages in. [For more about Darkness, check out this interview with D.J. Butler.]