Soleri: A Novel

Soleri: A Novel

by Michael Johnston


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765386489
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 9.30(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

MICHAEL JOHNSTON has always been an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before switching to writing full time. He is the co-author of the YA Heart of Dread trilogy (Frozen, Stolen, and Golden) with his wife, Melissa de la Cruz. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.

Read an Excerpt


By Michael Johnston

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2017 Michael Johnston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-8649-6


Will I see the sky today?

Ren Hark-Wadi sat in darkness, awaiting the sunrise.

As the first finger of dawn came sliding down the steep wall of the lightwell, it changed the color of the stones in his cell from black to brown to a faint, muddy yellow. Ren stood from his wooden pallet, took a scrap of polished iron from beneath his blanket, and slid the metal through a narrow slot in the window. It caught the light, filling the small chamber with streaks of blue-gray illumination. Ren let the faint rays wash over his face, hoping they might warm his skin, but the light was too dim.

Perhaps the upper rings can see a bit more of the sky? He didn't know.

He leaned closer to the window, pressed his head to the slot, and peered upward. If he held himself just-so, sometimes he could see a wedge of sky — a blue sliver no larger than a nut. In his free moments, when he was certain no one watched, he would stare at that blue dot till his neck cramped, hoping to catch sight of a bird or an errant cloud, some sign that the world outside existed, that the breeze blew and the clouds drifted, but his neck was too stiff to find the sky that morning. He saw only rows of narrow windows, one above the next, five rings of arched windows, one for each level of the Priory, trailing far underground where the outside world never intruded — where the outside world, and all the people in it, were nothing but rumor.

Maybe tomorrow. Maybe then I'll be able to steal a glimpse of the world beyond these walls.

Dousing himself with a bucket of foul gray water, his morning shower, Ren sputtered, rinsing the sleep from his eyes, as well as yesterday's dirt from his cheeks and his long hair, which was always flopping into his face. The water poured across the floor and out to a stone scupper, where it disappeared. He suspected that it was simply used again the next day, the same water with more grit in it. The men who ran the Priory were nothing if not stingy with the necessities of life.

Pain makes the man. The priors said it every day. The Soleri taught their people that pain built character. Pain makes the man. It was their mantra, but Ren didn't think it was a particularly good one. If pain truly made the man, then he had been made a man many times over. I don't think pain makes a man. I think we become men in spite of it. He had seen pain drive boys mad. He had seen it drive them to cruelty. He had never seen it make them into anything Ren thought a man should be, but what did he know? All Ren knew were boys. And all the boys he knew were ransoms.

In the distance a trumpet blared, high and tinny and full of self-importance. The Feast of the Devouring had begun; in five days the sun would blacken for a brief span, the daylight turning as weak and shadowy as twilight, the people hushed and awed at the yearly spectacle of the sun god's blessings.

Mithra-Sol dims his light to acknowledge our emperor and the whole of the empire watches as if it were some great miracle. Ren didn't care if the sun dimmed for a brief span. He'd never even seen the sun, not even a sliver. The fact that the sky blackened each year didn't seem particularly special. He was well accustomed to darkness.

Ren Hark-Wadi, the youngest child and only son of Arko, king of Harkana, had not seen the world beyond his prison walls since the emperor's soldiers had delivered him to the underground city of the Priory ten years earlier. Only three years old at the time, Ren could not recall the moment he had been taken from his family, could not remember his father's face, or his mother's, or his sisters'. He knew his sisters' names, Merit and Kepi, his teachers had told him that much, but he could not remember what they looked like. He wondered if they remembered him. If they would recognize him now. If anyone cared that he still existed.

Am I a name without a face? An empty chair at the table each night?

Surely they would know him if they saw him, even if he was now nearly as tall as a man. His hair, once honey-colored, so different from the other boys', was dull and mousy now from years of living underground, though it had attracted a lot of attention when he was younger. Ren had sharp cheekbones and a narrow, angular face marked by fox-colored eyes and a mouth that sometimes seemed set in a permanent frown. He was tall for his age, but surely there was something left in him of the boy he had been. Surely his father and his sisters would see it, if no one else could. He spent his nights trying to recall his childhood, searching his memories for a glimpse of their faces: his sisters, his father and mother. Did they love me? Were we a family once? Did they eat meals and tell stories and were the children held at night until they fell asleep? He longed for memories, but had none. Even a dream would have been acceptable, but he had never dreamed of them either. The idea was too foreign, too distant to conceive. He recalled only these rooms, the boys, the priors, and the bitter nights he had spent in this cell.

A prior tapped his door. "Out of your room, Hark-Wadi." Already the boys were gathering for morning meal. Time to go, time to eat, time for lessons.

Ren removed a stone from the wall. Behind the rock, a blade occupied a stony niche. Ren palmed the knife, tugged a linen tunic over his head. He needed to hurry. Their rations arrived once daily and were seldom sufficient: thin soup with bits of tough dried meat or stringy vegetables; sometimes a paste of dried dates or figs and thin, unleavened wafers; sometimes nothing but hard bread with oil to dip it in. It had been a long time — a very long time — since they'd had enough to fill their bellies. That was how the men ran the Priory. "Pain makes the man," a prior shouted as he walked past the boys' cells, banging on all the doors, waking them up.

Ren stumbled into the corridor and caught sight of his young friend Tye Sirra of the Wyrre. An older boy, Kollen Pisk, was talking to Tye, going on about the Devouring. Ren slipped behind Kollen and shoved him playfully in the back. "Priors are calling for you." It was a lie, but Ren wanted to get rid of the older boy, and a call from the priors was the surest way to do that. "Probably best be on your way," said Ren, slapping the tall boy again.

"Later then," Kollen said. He knocked Ren on the shoulder, but his eyes did not leave Tye, his gaze lingering up and down, as if taking measure. Then he laughed and disappeared down the corridor.

Ren waited until they were alone. "Do you think he knows?"

"I'm not sure — he might," said Tye.

"Then we need to be more careful. You should grow your hair longer," Ren said. "And maybe a different tunic?"

"My hair won't grow any faster — or longer," said Tye. "And this old tunic is the mangiest I could find. I already stink like a rat, do I have to look like one as well?"

Ren shrugged. "It's better than being discovered. No one looks twice at a rat and they certainly don't want to stand by one." He pinched his nose.

"It's no joke. Sooner or later someone is going to figure it all out and then —" Tye glanced around to make certain no one was listening.

"We can't give up so easily," said Ren. "We've fooled them for years."

"Years, yes, but I was younger then and didn't have much of anything to hide," said Tye, brushing a bit of dirt from what had become a slight swelling in her upper chest. Tye was a girl. Only her friends Ren and Adin Fahran, the heir of Feren, knew the truth. Her father had swapped his daughter for his son when the Protector came to fetch the boy from their home in the Wyrre three years ago. Now twelve, Tye was tall and thin, and for the most part lacked the curves that would come with womanhood. She had the light hair and eyes of the southern tribes, a slender nose, and a sprinkling of freckles on her cheeks. She was growing more beautiful every day, and took great pains to hide it. She could still pass for a boy, though each day she looked a little less like one.

"What are you doing in this part of the Priory?" Ren asked. Tye's chamber was on a different floor.

"Looking for you."

"Aren't you sweet —" he teased.

"Shut up, I'm here for a reason," she said.

"What reason?" Ren asked, seeing her face turn anxious.

"Just follow me." Tye darted down the corridor and Ren followed. What was so urgent that she would risk missing morning meal? The answer came soon enough when they saw Adin.

"My father's dead," Adin said, squinting in the gloom to look for his friends. He stood in the door to his cell, a yellowed parchment clutched in one hand, his skin dusky in the lamplight. Adin was a few years older than Ren, tall and lanky, his hair messy, his chin stubbled, shoulders hunched like a boy afraid of his own height.

"It's over," Adin said. "I'm leaving." The Priory boys were unable to return home until their fathers died or were killed.

For a moment Ren just stared at his friend. This was the moment they lived for every day. Freedom. Home. But Adin looked far from joyous. "What's wrong?" asked Ren.

"There was a note, from my uncle, Gallach. All is not what it seems. There was a revolt a year ago. A merchant named Dagrun Finner declared himself king of the Ferens and took the throne. He kept my father hostage, then sent him to the gallows for treason. Now the emperor has recognized Finner as king and since my father is dead and I am no longer the first son of Feren, I'll be set free. My line is ended."

Heavy footsteps echoed outside, the priors were coming. Their yellow robes emerged from the dark of the corridor. The Prior Master, Oren Thrako, walked at the head of the group. He was stout and strong, the skin over his bald head stretched smooth and bulging like an overdeveloped muscle. He gripped Adin by the neck.

"Time to go, boy," Oren said.

"Give us a moment," Ren protested

The parchment shook in Adin's hand. His eyes darted between the Prior Master and Ren. "The new king will surely kill me once he learns I have gained my freedom. They're sending me home to my death."

"Save your worries for someone who cares. Time to meet the Ray," Oren said.

Ren put himself between Adin and the Prior Master. "Just a moment," he begged.

"Go back to your cell," Oren said.

No. He would likely never see his friend again. But before Ren could speak, Oren slammed him against the wall. His fingers wrapped around Ren's neck, slowly tightening. Ren gagged, his face turning red, fingers twitching. Then something made the Prior Master let go. Tye had taken hold of Oren's tunic and was frantically tugging at it. The loose threads of the tunic caught Oren's bronze necklace. She gave the cloth another tug and the necklace bit into his neck, drawing blood.

Oren forgot about Ren. He lashed out at Tye, slamming her with his fist and knocking her to her knees. "Stupid boy," he said, gesturing for one of the priors to hand him his cudgel, meaning to beat her, right there in front of them.

No, no, not Tye, this is my fault. Ren swiftly drew his blade and pressed the iron against Oren's back.

The Prior Master turned slowly around, his eyes settling on the little knife. "What are you going to do with that?" he scoffed. "Skewer a mouse? You'd be better off threatening me with a thimble," he said. "Throw it down or I'll carve you with it myself."

More priors hurried down the corridor. Seeing the knife, three of them immediately surrounded Ren. A fourth took Adin and led him away. His friend resisted the prior's pull. "When you get out, find me, you sons of bitches!"

"Go, you idiot!" Ren backed toward the wall, the knife feeling heavy in his palm as he faced the priors and an enraged Oren Thrako. At least he's forgotten about Tye. "May you share the sun's fate — and all that!" he called to Adin. "We'll find you sure enough, I promise. If we ever get out of here," he muttered to himself.

Adin twisted to look back at his friends, and seeing them in obvious jeopardy, struggled to return to help. He struck the prior who was leading him down the hall, knocking him on the jaw and hurrying back down the corridor. But two more priors arrived, blocking his path. They faced Adin with a snarl and each one took one of his arms.

"I mean it — come to Feren," Adin yelled before he was pulled back into the shadows.

Before Ren could reply, Oren took him by the fabric of his tunic. "You should have dropped the bloody knife," he said. "I'll take a finger in payment, or maybe two." He held Ren by the neck while the remaining priors scrambled to take hold of the blade. It took two of them to restrain Ren while the other pried the knife from his hand, peeling back his fingers one by one. The knife clattered to the floor.

Oren took a step back, removing himself from the melee, straightening his tunic, and fixing his necklace. His hand came away red with blood from the ugly cut on his neck. "You'll go to the wells for this, Tye," the Prior Master raged. He held up his red fist. "We'll let the sun judge you for your sins."

"No," Ren said. "I'll do it, I'll stand beneath the sun. I drew the blade. Let me take his place." He knew the Prior Master would not pass up an opportunity to punish him, so he offered himself in Tye's place.

Oren glanced from Ren to Tye and back again, weighing the matter. Then he grunted his acceptance, as Ren knew he would. "Good enough, Hark-Wadi." He smiled grimly, as if this was what he had wanted all along. "In place of a finger, I will send you to the sun. You will stand and face the Sun's Justice," said Oren.

Ren had seen a boy survive the Sun's Justice, had seen the ransom's charred and flaking skin, his blind eyes and cracked lips, his neck and shoulders dotted with yellow and white pustules that ruptured when the boy bent his arm or flexed his neck. Now it was he who would stand and wither in an oven-sized shaft while the sun's heat turned the stones around him into searing coals. If he survived the ordeal, he was innocent. If he died, he was guilty and would be sent back to his kingdom in a casket, and the empire would demand a new ransom.

Already the priors were grabbing him by the hood of his tunic, taking him to the roof. "Go," he told Tye, who had tears in her eyes. "Forget about me." At least she is safe. It was comfort enough to know he had kept her from the worst of it. And Adin was free. His friend had escaped the Priory. Ren had spent the better part of his brief life dreaming of the day when the three of them would be free. It was all he wanted for himself and his friends. He tried to take some solace in Adin's freedom, but his thoughts were a jumbled mess. Soon he would face the Sun's Justice.

Strong hands lifted him by the armpits while he kicked and strained. His foot met the face of a gray-haired prior. He kicked again, but a younger and stronger man took hold of his ankle and wrenched the joint into a painful half-turn as they dragged him down the corridor.

They enjoy this, he thought, they like watching us squirm.

Ren saw an arch above him, which meant they were on the stairs. He had struggled for years to see the sun, to catch a glimpse of the sky, and now it was here, bright and blistering.

A door banged open and everything went white. Warm air buffeted his face. Ren squeezed his eyes closed, but sunlight pierced his eyelids, filling his vision with a red-veined panorama.

"Open your eyes, boy. We're on the roof," said one of the priors.

"No," he murmured, "I don't want to see the sun." In truth, he had wanted to see it his whole life, but now that the moment had come he wasn't ready. No matter. Ren did as told and saw a pair of crooked teeth smiling at him. The prior turned his head and spat into a lightwell. The spittle hung in the air, falling and falling, then disappearing into the darkness.

"That's where you're going — into the well, to bake like bread, to cook like a goose," he chortled. "Pain makes the man. Pain makes the man," the prior hummed the words.

Two and ten shafts dotted the roof of the Priory — long, narrow cuts dug into the flat stone, wells that fed light into the underground chambers of the Priory of Tolemy, the house for the emperor's ransoms.

"Here you go," said the crook-toothed man as he fed a rope under Ren's arms and tied a knot behind his back. "Careful not to touch the stones, you don't want to burn yourself," he japed.

Ren closed his eyes, the sun was too bright — he wasn't ready. The rope tightened around his chest. He felt a tug as the prior led him forward. His eyes clamped shut. He wished he could shut his ears too. The city was loud, almost suffocating. Dogs barked and hawkers cried.

"No, I —"

The prior's foot hit his back and Ren fell, tumbling into the darkness. The rope caught beneath his arms, the knot tightening like a hangman's noose. He grabbed the cord and tried to steady himself as his feet hung, kicking in the air.


Excerpted from Soleri by Michael Johnston. Copyright © 2017 Michael Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Soleri 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Soleri is a gorgeous book and the cover drew me in immediately (I read an advanced copy of the novel in softcover). The sweeping desert and monumental wall reminded me of the old Dune covers, but the color was cool gray rather than the ruddy red I remember from those old covers. Like Dune, Soleri is an epic for readers who enjoy the political, especially when it’s personal. And all of the politics in Soleri are personal. The novel is about a family pulled apart by their father’s indifference, by his failures, and by his duty to the empire of the Soleri. It’s sold as King Lear in Egypt and the similarities here are obvious. It’s a book for readers who enjoy detail. It’s obvious that the author put quite a bit of research into the work, collecting details on the people and the period. If I had to sum it up, I’d call Soleri a fast-moving work full of twists and secrets. I won’t give away any of the plot details. I think there is a synopsis posted on this page, but the twists (and there are many of them) are what drive Soleri and what made flip pages late into the night.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As the cover suggest, Soleri is truly an epic. It's a small book, not long in length, but dense with ideas. It;s well-researched and meticulously plotted by there author. There are twists and plenty that I did not anticipate and painful moment I saw from a distance and knew the author wanted me to dread. Altogether it was a refreshing, quick-paced read. It's great to find an epic fantasy under five hundred pages that still delivered the kind of scope and deep world-building that we expect from the best of the genre. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not Tolkien and its not Game of Thrones either, though it may appeal to readers of both, Soleri is a wholly different kind of world. It has a much more ancient, primitive feel and is based in what I can only guess is a re-imagined version of ancient egypt, a desert civilization ruled by elusive gods and warring leaders. It's a big book and definitely qualifies as an "epic" fantasy, but its told on the small scale through a fairly large cast of what i thought were for the most nicely developed characters, men and women, boys and girls, who had lived long or sometimes short lives, but were all on their second act, but still struggling to achieve their goals. The effect was refreshing, we get some pretty big moment and a couple clever turns, but we always experience them on a personal level.
steckerslists More than 1 year ago
An excellent Read and a great big epic. I just finished. Full review to follow. Check my reviews on Goodreads as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read, full review to follow.
JonsBookBurrow More than 1 year ago
It's a solid read. I don't expect a lot from first time authors. They're still getting to know the field, but Johnston appears to have a firm grasp on world building and the kind action and plotting it takes to build epic books moments. Good book, hoping for more in the second, a few more reveals, a little more knowledge about the Soleri and their history would help. So I'll probably stick around for the second, curious for some answers, especially those raised on the last page.
NovelKnight More than 1 year ago
Epic fantasy, meet Ancient Egypt. Soleri is the kind of sweeping fantasy you'd expect in the genre but lacked a few key elements that I look for when reading in this genre. Though the world-building is there, it was not fleshed out beyond tidbits here and there that appeared to be in place to spark the reader's interest. Nor did I find much depth in the characters, five of which we see the world through. But a decent first book in what appears will be a series (or at the very least will have a follow-up book). Let's start with the world. Soleri centers around the Soleri (huh, imagine that), godlike beings who rule over the land from behind a wall because no mortal can look upon them without dying. Much of this world has its traditions and faith revolving around the sun (at least at the heart of the empire) while the outlying kingdoms are each given their own special "thing" that sets them apart. And that's essentially how I felt much of the world-building went: create place, give it something special to use for the entire book to mark it as that place. Some of the descriptions were absolutely lovely and I look forward to more of that in the future from Johnston, but from a bigger picture, it was... lacking. The same could be said about the characters. We follow the five members of one family as their lives are ripped apart from without and within as the empire falls to the machinations and life-changing discoveries of a few individuals. Once more, each character has their "thing," some personality trait, some flaw, that identifies them apart from the rest but I couldn't tell you much beyond that. There's Ren, son of the Harkan king and now meant to take the throne as a young teen. His older sister, Merit, who has a whole lot of issues with the rest of her family. Ruthless, that one. Their sister, Kepi, who is the tomboy, rebellious princess. Arko, the Harkan king who isn't a great king and has a lot to think about in the many pages of this book. And then Sarra, the children's mother who left to become Mother Priestess. Big deal and all. I think I liked Merit the best, to be honest. She has put a lot of work into salvaging her kingdom and I felt like she deserved more than what she was given. I tried to think of a comparison title for Soleri and struggled. Compared to some of the larger epic fantasies, it seems watered down, not afraid to show character brutality and deaths but written in a way that I didn't particularly care when those scenes happened.  The writing style wasn't captivating. I enjoyed some of the descriptions here and there, and at times I wanted to know more about a particular character but with the alternating perspectives I needed to read through a couple chapters to get back to that person. But I put this book down. Several times.  I'm not quite sure if I would recommend this book just yet. Will wait and see how the next book reads before making that call, to see if it's worth it. It wasn't bad though, and if you enjoy fantasy with a different span than the usual medieval western Europe, give it a go!
BenT-Gaidin More than 1 year ago
Interesting, even though it didn't quite land for me. I got this as an ARC from Tor last month; that it took me until the book's release to finish it is probably a sign of something or other. Part of it's that I'm not in the target audience right now -- this is packed with action and intrigue as rulers (or would-be rulers) scrabble for power in a hollow empire, trying to shore up their places as the world crumbles around them. Overlooked daughters try to come into their own power, abandoned sons turn away from thrones that they've never known... and unfortunately, we bounce around just a _little_ too much for me to get attached to any of them. Secrets are hoarded, potential allies are turned away, and everyone is just grasping enough to let victories slip away from them. It's well written, and very page-turning when I was actually reading, but I also never felt very good about going back to it. I fully admit that this is just me; in another time and place, the bleakness and desperation might make me want to devour this to see who might ride the wave of collapse and come out on top, but for now, it's just not going to do it for me. Let the next book give me a triumphant queen beloved by her people, or a group of friends making good, and I might come back, but I don't want to just watch things fall apart.