With Kingdoms Of Death (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Christopher Ruocchio is presenting the fourth novel in his space fantasy series, The Sun Eater saga. But as he explains in the following email interview, this series just got longer, sort of, and is all the better for it.
For people who haven’t read the other books, what is The Sun Eater series about, and when and where does it take place?
The Sun Eater is a science fantasy series set about 20,000 years into our future. It follows a nobleman named Hadrian Marlowe, who runs away from home in the hopes of becoming an explorer and of making peace with the Cielcin, the first technologically advanced alien race humanity has yet encountered. Instead, he tells us on page 1 that he is the man responsible for their extinction, and his story is why and how and about all the things not in the official record. All this takes place against the backdrop of a vast, Romano-Byzantine-feeling galactic empire of genetically enhanced feudal houses in a galaxy where star travel can take years or decades, one filled with ancient secrets, evil machines, time-bending alien intelligences, and even events that may be supernatural in nature.
And then for people who are all caught up, and can ignore me yelling SPOILER WARNING, what is Kingdoms Of Death about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous novel, Demon In White?
Kingdoms Of Death picks up about 200 years (from Hadrian’s subjective experience) after Demon In White. He’s fought in many more battles, and is much older and more tired than when we last saw him, and is also fairly badly burned (not literally) by the Empire’s ill-treatment of him. Since the last book, he was placed on trial for witchcraft — meaning the use of forbidden technologies — and has been sent into a kind of internal exile to keep him out of the spotlight. The book picks up as he is recalled from that pseudo-imprisonment to deal with an emergency that will set him back on the path to war.
In the previous interview we did about Demon In White, you said that it was originally a much longer story until you split it in two. But did you just split the long version of Demon in half or did you end up changing a bunch of stuff in what would ultimately become Kingdoms Of Death?
I split Demon before I even outlined it. I looked at all that needed to be accomplished and said, “There’s no way this is one book.” So it became two: Demon In White and Kingdoms Of Death, and then two became three when the paper shortages caused my publisher to split what was then Kingdoms into two books, Kingdoms Of Death and Ashes Of Man. So where I originally planned 4 books, the series is now at least 6, and may become 7 if the final volume suffers a similar, paper-shortage-induced division. But, because of the way in which this all happened, I was able to make adjustments to my plan, and I think that readers of the series ignorant of all these back-room dealings will not notice anything strange. Each book is complete in terms of action, and each will, I hope, be totally satisfying. I know Demon In White, at least, has been the best received of my works so far.
As you said, Demon In White and the other Sun Eater novels are all space fantasy stories. I assume Kingdoms Of Death is as well?
The science fantasy angle will always be there with any Sun Eater project, but what most people think of as genres I think of as being pretty porous and blurry and the mix has been different in each of the books in the series. The first book was a bit of a picaresque, a bit of a bildungsroman; where the second was kind of a Gothic novel in space in a lot of ways; and the third was a political thriller and a war novel. Kingdoms Of Death, by contrast, has elements of the horror story and the dystopian novel, but it’s still going to feel very much in keeping with the traditions of the series as a whole.
Speaking of the previous books, are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on Kingdoms Of Death but not on the other Sun Eater novels?
Shusako Endo’s great novel Silence plays a bit of a role here. As a Catholic myself, I’ve always struggled with the apparent quietness and seeming indifference of God, and that’s very much a theme in play here, alongside the failure of relations between totally foreign cultures. That’s probably the single biggest influence here that’s new, so to speak but the classic sci-fi and Western Canon mainstays are here again in force as well.
How about non-literary influences; was Kingdoms Of Death influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not specifically. I’ve talked before about the profound influence Japanese RPGs have had on my storytelling instincts, particularly regarding plot structure (I think I tend toward something like the Japanese 4-act structure over the Aristotelian 5-act model we’re all familiar with, though others may disagree), but I struggle to think of a specific example here.
Along with writing The Sun Eater saga, you’ve also edited or co-edited a number of anthologies, including the sci-fi space opera collection Sword & Planet [which you can read more about here], and the military sci-fi collection World Breakers [which you can read more about here]. How do you think working on those collections, and with other authors, may have specifically influenced Kingdoms Of Death?
The foremost way the anthologies have impacted my novels is that they’ve allowed me the chance to write short stories in The Sun Eater universe. I’ve done more than a dozen stories now, for the Baen anthologies and in other places, and those stories have allowed me to broaden and deepen the world in directions I’d not have been able to otherwise. Many of those stories have impacted the worldbuilding, the backstory, and even the plot of the novels in interesting ways (though none of them is necessary for folks reading the books). That’s been very fun.
Along with Kingdoms Of Death, you and Hank Davis co-edited the upcoming anthology Time Troopers. What is that collection about?
Time Troopers is a collection of mostly reprinted classic stories featuring time travel and some military connection, be that an outright time war, or the time travelers visit a war, or time travelers alter history in some way involving conflict.
You and Sean C.W. Korsgaard also co-edited an upcoming anthology of alien archaeology stories called Worlds Long Lost, which is due out December 6. Do you think Worlds was influenced at all by working with Hank Davis on Time Troopers?
I think all my anthologies have been influenced by my time working with Hank. Along with Tony Daniel, he taught me how to go about building these anthologies in the first place. That being said Worlds Long Lost is all original stories, and my books with Hank were all classic reprints, so it’s a very different beast.
In a similar vein, do you think working with Hank on Time Troopers — or on the anthology Cosmic Corsairs, which you did in 2020 — had any influence on Kingdoms Of Death?
Not especially. The main character in my novelette from Cosmic Corsairs, Commander Halford, makes a very brief appearance in Kingdoms Of Death, but that’s really about the only connection or influence I can think of.
Going back to Kingdoms Of Death, it, as you mentioned, is the fourth book in The Sun Eater saga. Do you know yet when book five will be out?
Book five, Ashes Of Man, will be released December 6, 2022, barring any unforeseen delays that may manifest between my writing this answer and that time. By the time this interview has published, the book will be finished and in the hands of my editor, and I will be working on the outline for book six.
Earlier I asked if Kingdoms Of Death was influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But I’d like to flip things around, if I may, and ask if you think Kingdoms Of Death, and the rest of the Sun Eater series, could work as a series of movies, a show, or a game?
Absolutely. Any or all of the above would be very exciting and interesting, although it would have to be adapted to the new medium. You couldn’t just port the stories verbatim to the screen or the game engine. The books are very personal. They’re Hadrian’s handwritten account of how things happened. A film would need to be more objective, totally abandoning the subjective (some would say “unreliable”) narrator, and so I’d like to see a certain amount of strategic creative liberties taken in adapting the books to screen, with events diverging from the text in clever ways. The books work as books, the screen or game version would need to work as a film, series, or game — first and foremost.
So, which format do you think would work best?
I think that an RPG in the style of the Witcher games would be an especially interesting way to explore Hadrian’s character as a subjective narrator, with the additional lens of player choice. Hadrian also has abilities vis-a-vis parallel worlds and quantum mechanics that would really gel with the idea of replayability and things of that nature — and I’m a gamer at heart, at least as much as I am a cinephile — I think it would be really interesting to try and bring The Sun Eater world to a game.
So, is there anything else you think people curious about Kingdoms Of Death need to know about it or The Sun Eater saga?
A couple things. The first is that I actually wrote twice as much book as you’re getting here. With the paper shortage, the book got split in half and shaped into two volumes (which I’m actually pleasantly surprised about, I think both volumes are stronger now apart than they were together). It was a bit fraught getting them to this stage, but now we’re here…I’m very happy for the extra work. Ashes Of Man was intended to be the second part of this book originally.
Additionally, I don’t usually provide content warnings, but this is easily the darkest, hardest hitting of the series so far.
Finally, if someone enjoys Kingdoms Of Death, what space fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for Ashes Of Man to come out?
This is a classic throwback, but I read The Sword Of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett not too long ago, and it was a blast. I think it was originally part of an Ace Double with a Conan reprint back in the ’40s, so I understand if it’s a bit dated for some people, but it’s a blast. It kind of has an Indiana Jones-on-Mars feeling to it, and Leigh Brackett’s one of those writers who sort of fell into the memory hole for most people, but she’s a blast to read.