This enjoyable anthology of new fiction is based on, as you might expect given the title, the “sword and planet” sub-genre of science fiction. Or, to be more specific, adventure fantasy set in space or on other planets. Think Burrough’s John Carter of Mars or Brackett’s Eric John Stark.
The two standouts to me were:
“Queen Amid Ashes” (by editor Christopher Ruocchio) – I think is some of Ruocchio’s best writing in the entire Sun Eater series. The plot is very simple, yet it leaves its mark on you long afterwards. It’s both a great introduction to the main themes of the series to newcomers (plus, as it’s told from Hadrian’s POV, it reads like a main series novel) and also a deepening of them for returning readers, knowing what comes later in the series.
“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nakh-Maru” (Jessica Cluess) – I think this story, of all the others in the anthology, best captured the adventurous feel of sword and planet: non-stop action, larger than life characters, and cool set pieces. It was a blast to read.
“A Murder of Knights” (Tim Akers) “Power and Prestige” (D.J. Butler) “Saving the Emperor” (Simon R. Green) “Chronicler of the Titan’s Heart” (Anthony Martezi) “A Knight Luminary” (R.R. Virdi) “The Test” (T.C. McCarthy)
It is the far future, many thousands of years after the present day. Mankind has colonized a sizable chunk of the Milky Way, with the largest polity being the Sollan Empire, consisting of hundreds of millions of settled planets. Faster than light travel is not possible (interstellar travelers utilize cryonic chambers for the decades-long trips), so while the empire is ultimately ruled by a single emperor, the individual rulers (all appointed by the emperor) of the various planets have de facto control over their demesnes. The aristocracy, called palatines, are genetically enhanced, and can live for many centuries. The state religion of the empire, called the Holy Terran Chantry, is also its judicial arm, with a main point of emphasis curbing forbidden types of technology, especially anything related to artificial intelligence.
One of those planets is Delos. It began as a strategic commercial hub, only to gain further importance when vast uranium deposits were discovered on the planet and throughout the system. It is ruled by Duchess Elmira Kephalos, and her son-in-law Lord Alistair Marlowe of Meidua rules a small (but extremely wealthy, as it is home to said uranium deposits) prefecture on the planet. Alistair is the father of Hadrian, the main protagonist of the series, as well as Crispin and later (after Hadrian leaves) Sabine.
(from the beginning chapters….there are other major characters introduced later on)
With Hadrian’s departure, Crispin now is the heir apparent to Meidua. Even though it has been many decades since his brother’s disappearance, Crispin is still struggling to fill Hadrian’s shoes, not to mention still haunted by how he acted the night before his brother fled.
Sabine, who was conceived after Hadrian’s departure (children of palatines are essentially grown in vats) is now an adult, and is getting ready to depart with her brother on a trip to see their dying grandmother, ruler of Delos.
Kyra, who in Empire of Silence was a young woman, is now nearing retirement age (she is fated as a plebian to a normal lifespan) but still serves the Marlowe family as a trusted shuttle pilot.
Before he leaves to see his grandmother, Crispin’s father hands him a highmatter sword, a rare and deadly weapon, anticipating palace intrigue. After all, depriving Lord Marlowe of his heirs could mean his aunt Amalia, who is in line to inherit Delos, could also inherit the lucrative prefecture.
When their shuttle is shot down over the mountain wilderness, killing most of the guards assigned to protect them, Crispin is forced into a leadership role as the survivors of the crash flee what he believes is an assassination attempt directed by his aunt.
In Empire of Silence, Crispin is seen through Hadrian’s eyes, and the picture wasn’t exactly sympathetic. In The Lesser Devil, we see a different Crispin, who still has some of the flaws noted by his brother, but a side of him that Hadrian wasn’t able to perceive. This passage, from chapter 1, gives a different view of their relationship:
Crispin stood anxiously in the doorway, eyes taking in the two packed trunks stacked at the end of the bed, remembering - as he always did when it came to leave Devil's Rest and visit their mother's family - that last fateful trip with his older brother. He had gone to visit Hadrian that last night at Haspida. He had sneered, mocked Hadrian's friend - the old scholiast tutor Gibson. He wanted something, anything from his brother besides his aloof coolness. Any reaction. A kind word, a smile. He'd settled for anger instead, had been glad of any emotion from distant Hadrian, such that a piece of him leaped for joy when the older boy screamed and threw himself at Crispin.
Crispin would never make it as a diplomat; an unfiltered outburst nearly costs him precious allies at a critical point if not for cooler heads around him patching things up. Even in his 50s he’s still a haughty, spoiled palatine that still has some growing up to do, if that makes any sense. But he also has a steadfast sense of honor and noblesse oblige which propels him to action, and thankfully he’s much better at that than cultivating relationships.
As always, Ruocchio’s world-building continues to astonish me. One of the things that drew me to this series and has kept me reading it is that although it takes place thousands of years in the future, chock full of weird creatures and situations, it balances the new with much that is familiar from past and present, much that is still recognizably of our times. That still applies here, especially in the interesting way an ancient religion is introduced as having survived millennia of drastic social and political change; these “adorators” are placed under restrictions but yet tolerated by the Chantry on Delos.
The action sequences are excellent as well, with that highmatter sword getting plenty of use (along with sundry other weapons and vehicles).
The main series is written in the first person (in Hadrian’s POV), so I went into The Lesser Devil not knowing how the change of viewpoint would affect the flow of the story. I need not have worried, as the prose is still as fluid in third person as it was in first.
This is a side story in the Sun Eater series, which begins with Empire of Silence(review). The Lesser Devil takes place after the first section of Empire of Silence, so if you wanted to read the series in strict internal chronological order, you could read the first 21 chapters of Empire, switch over to The Lesser Devil, then return to Empire, starting at Chapter 22. Or you easily could just jump in here as an accessible entry point into the series if you’re still unsure about committing to one of the mainline novels.