Soleri by Michael JohnstonSoleri by Michael Johnston

Soleri by Michael Johnston science fiction book reviewsSoleri (2017), by Michael Johnston, isn’t going to make anyone marvel at its originality, which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. I’ve said many a time that with genre books, often one can get away with employing standard tropes in terms of characters and plots so long as the craft and execution is there. Unfortunately, Johnston doesn’t quite succeed with either, and so despite having some potential, it’s hard to recommend Soleri at this point, especially given that the story ends wholly unresolved.

The setting is the sprawling and ancient Soleri Empire, which has kept its four subjugated kingdoms mostly under control for over 2000 years, though there has been an occasional revolt now and then. One of the ways the Empire keeps its kingdoms submissive is by taking the king’s heirs upon their birth and keeping them hostage in the Priory in the capitol. Just as important is the sense of divine myth and power that surrounds the Emperor, who is never seen (the sight of his divine face kills) save by the First Ray, sort of a human Prime Minister who announces the Emperor’s decrees and deals with the details of running the Empire. Each year there is a solar eclipse, which is depicted as the Sun blessing the Soleri Emperor.

The plot focuses on the ruling family of the Harkana Kingdom. Years ago its king rebelled and, though defeated, managed to prevent his son Arko (the current king) from being ransomed. Arko’s own son Ren has spent most of his young life at the Priory. His ambitious eldest sister Merit helps run the kingdom (and would like to keep doing so), while his other sister Kepi prefers the way of the sword and wants nothing more than to have free reign of her life, especially given her terrible experience when she was forced into marriage at age 13 to a brutal noble of the neighboring kingdom of Feren. Meanwhile, Arko’s wife Sarra left the family years ago and is now the High Priestess of the Empire’s religion.

The precipitating event for the Soleri is when the solar eclipse fails to materialize, creating a sense of fear and chaos in a population already tense over drought, hunger, and fear of attack from the “outlanders” and a former general who has rebelled. Sarra’s priesthood is in near open war with the upstart military commander of the capitol (the Father Protector Saad) as both Sarra and Saad plot to replace the aging First Ray. Arko is summoned to appear before the Emperor as the “needed sacrifice” to calm things, and Ren is released to take his rightful place as heir. Back in Harkana, Merit wants to marry Hepi off to the usurper king of Feren (Dagrun) to form an alliance and also as a way to continue her and Dagrun’s secretive relationship. Nothing, of course, goes as planned. People are betrayed, corruption is laid bare, plots are laid, rebellion is in the air, and both Arko and Sarra learn of a secret that could threaten the very existence of the Empire, even as there are hints of a great danger from the past returning.

As noted, little of the above is particularly original. Lots of politicking, corrupt nobility, the spunky princess who wants to be a fighter and doesn’t want to be a marriage prize, plotting priests, an ancient threat, etc. So that’s one problem, though one that could have been overcome via style, craft, and as mentioned, execution. But each of those has issues as well.

Johnston’s prose is solid enough, “workman-like” I’d call it, but you certainly won’t linger over any particular sentences or passages. The worldbuilding is thin — we’re offered up desert culture and forest cultures, but they read more like outlines of each; there’s little sense of reality or depth to the settings/cultures. You don’t feel the desert, for instance, as you do in other such works, such as Bradley Beaulieu’s SHARAKHAI books. And while I did like the Egyptian aspect of the Soleri Empire, it jarred against the Welsh backdrop of the Feren kingdom.

The characters are also thin, partly because our time is divided up amongst them and partly because they’re playing such familiar roles. Motivations don’t always seem earned or logical and some characters have too-quick of a change of attitude. And they get moved so quickly through their plot paces that one doesn’t feel like they really know them as characters, as people, versus as plot vehicles. Plotting, as well, has some issues. There’s a reliance on some coincidence or implausible points, things happen too quickly, some scenes don’t make a lot of sense or one wonders what the point of a particular event was. I do like the core premise (what lies at the center of a mystery and the big secret), but that wasn’t enough to overcome the narrative issues.

I suppose one benefit to the plotting issues is that Soleri does speed along relatively quickly, meaning I never really considered not finishing and even if I hadn’t been reviewing it I probably would have completed it. In other words, Soleri isn’t a bad book; but unfortunately it also isn’t one I can recommend when one considers all the options out there.

~Bill Capossere

Soleri by Michael Johnston science fiction book reviewsSoleri is the first book in a new epic fantasy series: think A Game of Thrones-lite, with an ancient Egypt-like setting. The multifaceted plot abounds in conspiracies, betrayals, cruelties, and flawed characters. There’s commendable loyalty, but it’s mostly overshadowed by the treachery, cruelty and double-crossing. Overseeing it all is the government of the mysterious Soleri, a powerful race said to be descended from gods.

The Soleri are the ruling family of the sprawling, restless Soleri Empire, a dynasty of nearly 3,000 years, though they are never seen by any human except the person who is designated the “First Ray of the Sun,” the prime minister-like mouthpiece of their government. The Soleri hold sway over several neighboring kingdoms by a combination of military might, superstition and a system called ransoming, where the heir of ruling families are kept in a grim dungeon in the capital city of Solus, called the Priory, until the ruler (typically their father) dies and they become the next.

Soleri focuses on the five members of the ruling family of the kingdom of Harkana, one of the four main subject kingdoms. The story alternates between their viewpoints:

  • The Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, carries a legacy of guilt from being one of the few heirs to avoid the Priory ransom, due to the battles his father fought to keep from giving him up ― battles that carried a heavy price in Harkan lives lost. Added to that is the guilt from giving up his own son and heir Ren as a ransom at the unusually early age of 3.
  • Ren, now age 13, has managed to survive the mercilessly abusive Priory and make a few friends among the other ransoms. On the verge of death from an ordeal by sun, he’s suddenly freed, sent to Harkan with a scroll ordering his father to appear before the Soleri emperor ― which is always a death sentence.
  • Merit, Ren’s lovely older sister, chafes at not being named as her father’s heir, and at her politically arranged marriage to a gay man. She’s in an emotional affair with Dagrun Finner, the usurper of the Feren throne, and sees an opportunity to gain power and the man she loves through manipulating events in her favor.
  • Kepi, age 16, is still recovering from a brief but abusive marriage with a Feren landholder when she was 13. She has since honed her sword-fighting abilities and is involved in a semi-secret relationship with a young man who’s a commoner, but a surprise, unwelcome marriage proposal from Dagrun may end her dreams of living life on her own terms.
  • Sarra Amunet, Arko’s estranged wife, abandoned her family about ten years ago for reasons that are disclosed later in the story, along with some sizable secrets that she has been keeping. Since leaving Harkana, she’s worked her way up to the position of Mother Priestess of the empire’s religion, a position of considerable power. Sarra is now in a no-holds-barred rivalry with Amen Saad, the Protector of the empire who controls its armies, competing to replace the old man who is currently the First Ray of the Sun. But the Ray has his own ideas for his successor.

I found Soleri reminiscent of A Game of Thrones in its frequent brutality, political intriguing and cruel betrayals, and even in some of its subplots. One character’s experiences, for example, ended up reminding me quite strongly of Daenerys’. But Soleri, while it has its merits, is a lesser version of George R.R. Martin’s world of Westeros. Michael Johnston’s prose is more workmanlike; it flows well but rarely inspires awe. Soleri is also not as engrossing or rich in its world-building or characterization. Merit is a ruthless woman of strength and power, but fairly one-dimensional. Ren’s thoughts and actions seem more appropriate to a boy of 15 or 16 than a 13 year old. The brutality of the Priory toward its young inmates is stunning, but the reasons for the cruel treatment seem shallow, more to shock the reader than because it actually makes sense for the Soleri government to treat its hostages so extremely poorly.

There are some intriguing twists and turns to the story. Politically motivated schemes and machinations abound, and secrets are revealed that cast a new light on events that occurred earlier in the story. For the most part I found it engaging, making it difficult to put down the book. Sarra, forced to leave the capitol for a time, takes off on a quest to find an answer to the failing amaranth crops that sustain this desert empire, assisted by a young priest, Noll, who is suspiciously adept at figuring out clues to dead languages. Sarra finds far more than she bargained for, but the full scope of the mystery of the Soleri is not revealed in this first volume of the series.

Michael Johnston, a trained architect, has incorporated some unusual settings into Soleri. The underground city of Solus, including luxurious but dusty and abandoned royal chambers; chambers inside of mountains that glow with light under certain conditions; secret maps built into the architecture of a ceiling that only become visible  at a certain time of day; a forest of stones where a characters experiences a mystical rite. Johnston’s attention to these types of details, echoes of actual places in our world, as he explains in this SFFWorld interview, enriched the story for me.

Soleri is being marketed as an “epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.” Personally I didn’t see much of a King Lear connection, except in the rather vague sense of a family torn apart by internal betrayals as well as external events. Each Hark-Wadi family member has his or her strengths, but most of them have a major flaw or two as well, which may lead to their downfall.

If you’re looking for something to fill in the gap while waiting for the next book in Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, you may enjoy Soleri. It’s not the most original fantasy ever, but it definitely has its moments and held my attention through the ending.

~Tadiana Jones

Publication date June 13, 2017. Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear. The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever. On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas. Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family. Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

    View all posts
  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

    View all posts