One of my favorite things about reading a book is reaching that point where you just can’t put it down. It’s always magical to feel immersed in another world. Some books draw you in right away. Others can be a slow burn, but the wait feels worth it when you go from “I’m enjoying this book” to “talk to me in approximately 150 pages.” And then, there are the books that just never take off. Michael Johnston’s SOLERI (Amazon), despite its interesting premise, is one of those.
At first I thought it was me. In the interest of full disclosure, long epic fantasy isn’t always up my alley. Knowing this, I wanted to be sure and give SOLERI a fair read because sometimes more extensive worldbuilding requires a slower start. Right? So I kept pushing through, waiting for the moment when reading would stop feeling like work. But it never did.
As I mentioned previously, the premise of the book is interesting. SOLERI follows the fate of the Hark-Wadi family. They are the ruling family of the vassal state of Harkana, one of the many nations under the rule of the powerful Soleri empire. The gods who rule the empire are too glorious to be viewed by mortal beings; instead, they live behind the shroud wall, ruling without ever being seen.
The Soleri empire is beginning to crumble around the edges: there is a military coup brewing, discontent and hunger growing in the vassal states, and a power struggle in the capital between the military and the priesthood. When a yearly solar eclipse never materializes, it sets a number of events into motion that will forever change the fate of the empire and the Hark-Wadi family as they learn secrets that have lain hidden for hundreds of years.
The narrative itself has decent pacing, and a good balance of action and introspection. Set in an ancient Egypt-esque world, the desert setting provides interesting landscapes and dilemmas for characters to interact with. By limiting his POV characters to one family, Johnston narrows his scope to a manageable number of new names and faces. The familial connections allow Johnston to very naturally interweave the various threads of the narrative and layer on secrets and surprises in both the personal and public realms.
Where the novel falls flat is in its lackluster characterization. Most of the characters never become more than tropes: the eldest daughter, who uses her sexuality as power; the rebellious tomboy who must stop running from responsibility; the slighted wife turned priestess.
Of all of the family members, Arko Hark-Wadi’s journey has the potential to be either the most devastating or redemptive, but in the end it’s neither. Arko Hark-Wadi is a warrior king, haunted by the war his father waged so that he would not have to deliver him to the Priory, a prison where the Soleri hold the sons of their vassal states as hostages. Angry and alcoholic, Arko is called to be the new Ray of the Sun, the sole point of contact between the outside world and the Soleri. When Arko unexpectedly becomes the most powerful man in an empire that has ruined his life, he must decide if he will seize the power offered to him or if he will continue his slow decline. I didn’t expect him to become suddenly brilliant and decisive, but Arko’s attempts to escape his own demons and fulfill his new position felt more uninspired than tragic.
Johnston’s struggle to fully realize his characters leads to a narrative that lacks an essential driving tension because the stakes never feel strong enough for the reader to invest in the outcome of any particular action. Instead, what develops is a disconnect between the point where the reader recognizes that the situation is supposed to elicit a certain emotion and then only being able to mark that emotion by its absence.
With SOLERI, Johnston hits all the correct beats of an epic story but nevertheless misses his mark because of poor characterization; thus creating a competent, but ultimately unfulfilling, tale.
- Recommended Age: 14
- Language: Yes, some cursing
- Violence: Blood and mayhem, not too graphic
- Sex: Several scenes but light on details