Empire of the Feast by Bendi Barrett
2022’s novella Empire of the Feast begins with something going wrong. Riverson awakes, being called Empress by a royal retainer, who is shocked to discover that the new ruler is not female, as all of the Stag Empire’s rulers have been. Furthermore, Riverson lacks the memories of his forebears — and it seems his immediate predecessor, the 31st Empress, was murdered. That’s pretty shocking, but it’s going to get more shocking real fast.
Emperor Riverson the First finds out he’s on a space station orbiting his system’s sun, which is no ordinary sun. Something resides within it, something ravening, and the ruler and their court must keep it fed and quiet, mostly by directing the erotic energy generated from the nonstop orgy in the throne room. Riverson, as the ruler of the Stag Empire, has a connection to the Rapacious beyond that of sex — and he doesn’t know if that is good or bad.
The problems don’t stop there. The Stag Empire is truly an empire, an interstellar one, and there is unrest in some of the distant star systems. Coming to the station uninvited are the Luperci, an elite fighting squad dedicated to protecting the Empire; if Null_Wolf, the leader of the Luperci, senses Riverson’s vulnerability he will attempt a coup. And meanwhile, the Rapacious has already reached out to Riverson, tempting him and threatening him.
Neon Hemlock delights in publishing unusual, unconventional novellas, which this is. Written perfectly in the tone of a court-intrigue story, set on a space station, brimming with magic, betrayal and sex, this short work unfolds layer after layer of doubt, revelation, betrayal, loyalty and sacrifice. It’s steamy, sexy, suspenseful and funny. It’s fantasy set in outer space. The sex is intimate (well, the orgy isn’t, there are just too many people), but leans more to the lyrical than the graphic.
I loved these characters, I enjoyed the narrative language and I was surprised page after page. Lots of questions about Riverson’s world remain unanswered, but not as loose ends, more as threads that could lead to more stories. If stories about men having sex with men make you uncomfortable, you should skip this one — otherwise, come for the orgy, stay for the court intrigue and luxuriate in the language.