In Empire of the Feast, we awaken with Riverson, 32nd ruler of the Stag Empire, as he attempts to govern without the memories of his previous lives. To survive the ever-sharpening gears of war, he will need to mend the political schisms threatening to tear his empire apart while maintaining the erotic rituals holding off the eldritch horror known only as the Rapacious.
Empire of the Feast is currently part of a pre-order campaign running until April 12th via Indiegogo in conjunction with Neon Hemlock's 2022 Novella Series.
I have never read anything like it before.
Bendi Barrett is a speculative fiction writer, game designer, and pretend-adult living in Chicago. His novella Empire of the Feast is part of Neon Hemlock’s 2022 Novella Series. He's published two interactive novels: Avatar of the Wolf and Fate of the Storm Gods. Both are available through Choice of Games. He also writes gay erotic fiction as Benji Bright and runs a patreon for the thirsty masses. He can be found at Benmakesstuff.com and on twitter as both @bendied and @benji_bright.
Congratulations on Empire of the Feast! This book is deeply multifaceted and brings a thorough exploration of story to a fast-paced format. As you were writing this story, what drew you to a novella length?
So, before I answer that, I just want to say how surreal it is to be doing this interview with you. Late last year I was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for a potentially scary diagnosis [spoiler: everything’s fine], and in that office I was reading The Echo Wife. It’s a book so engrossing, so artfully rendered, that it took me out of myself and I’m so grateful to have spent that time with it. So, thank you so much for making it.
OK! The novella! The format came to me, actually. dave ring approached me about possibly pitching something for the Neon Hemlock 2022 novella series and I asked him what kind of stories the series was missing. After some back and forth we settled on the space opera with all of its intrigue and backstabbing. I brought the carnal rituals, dark magic, and corrupt empire from home—they were just lying around.
In Empire of the Feast, you’ve taken on the classic SFF setting of an intergalactic empire, taking a close look at the sources and victims of expansionist power. I was especially drawn in by the way this story challenges false notions of balance within tyrannical systems. Do you hope your readers walk away from Empire of the Feast with new questions about the world, new insights into it, or both? Do you have hopes for what those questions and/or insights might be?
I think that the world as written is fundamentally broken. It's held together by this sort of strongwoman cult of personality where people are swearing allegiance to someone they see as both a savior and a jailer. And as in all fundamentally broken systems it's hard to see the path out.
I would love it if people left Empire of the Feast with a sense of the interlocking instabilities that make a system like the Staghead Empire viable, even when seemingly everyone can see that the shit is not working.
As for questions, I think one of the powers of the novella structure is that you can raise more questions than you have time to answer, so I think there's a ton to dig into: there's the political and mystical history of the empire, the exact nature of the relationship between The Rapacious (an avaricious, non-human entity slumbering in the sun) and the Empress, and whether or not the newly-minted emperor is ever going to make his meeting with Cloud End Cult representative.
Riverson, the protagonist of Empire of the Feast, is a clone who can’t access his predecessors’ memories. What intrigues you about the intersections between cloning, identity, and the notion of the self?
Just having referenced The Echo Wife, I feel like you're maybe the perfect person to ask this question. (Sidebar: reader, if you haven't read that book, go read that book!)
I assume that I'm like a lot of people in that I'm always thinking about the untrodden path: should I have picked a different major, a different city to settle in, a different galaxy devouring antagonist for my novella…? Actually, I'm pretty confident in that last one, but just that last one.
It's hard not to imagine some version of yourself with more tools to deal with the slow-motion car crash of your life. But as I've gotten more motivated to solve problems rather than wishing them away, I've started thinking about the reverse: what if a blank slate walked into your life, what would they fix first? What would they find untenable? I don't know that we can assume that the exact things that you find overwhelming or unfixable would feel the same to this new 'you.'
So, yes, Riverson is at a profound disadvantage when he comes into his life and its responsibilities without memories and context, but he's also unburdened from that same context. I think the locus of this story and what I find so compelling about the question of a new kind of clone in this legacy of perfect copies is that finally someone comes along who hears: "This is how it's always been done," and asks, "why?"
The titular Feast is, as the reader quickly learns, a ritual that is vital to the survival of the empire as it currently functions. What made you want to examine eroticism through a lens of cosmic coercion and power-seeking?
From the opening paragraphs of the novella you're made to understand that this is an empire that sees itself not just as the power center of the galaxy, but the moral center as well. Because of the Empress-now-Emperor's direct role in the defense of the galaxy from its looming eldritch threat, anything done in the continuation of the empire has this kind of post hoc justification: I wield the power, and therefore I am right.
Unsubtly, even the space station that forms the heart of the empire is called The Corrected Center.
So, in a setting like this it feels natural that even sex can be commodified. Much like the expansionist arm of the empire that colonizes new worlds, the bodies of those who serve the Feast—a ritualistic orgy which fuels the emperor's control over an otherworldly, destructive force—are considered just another extension of the emperor's will. In a lot of ways the Feast is a microcosm of the empire because it's come to mirror some of its injustices: people sell themselves into bondage just to participate, those physically closer to the emperor's dais are considered favored while those further away considered less so.
Not to be too "no ethical consumption under empire" about it, but I wanted to explore how even the deeply personal individualism of sex and sexuality can be weaponized. And also I couldn't get the apocryphal claim that Rome fell because of sexual deviancy out of my mind; I wondered, "What if sexual deviancy was the only thing keeping Rome afloat?"
Jeez, that was a lot of answer. Eek!
Riverson is the first in a long line of clones to identify as male. How does gender impact your understanding of and development of character? What do you love about examining gender through narrative?
One of the background details of Empire of the Feast is that the titular empire was explicitly created by the mystical and political efforts of a group of women. Yet, in the world we set foot in, the female descendants of those women have been shifted to background roles, while their male descendants claim the glory and righteousness of their foremothers. Yet, this also an empire where the first male clone in the line of empresses is considered at best bad luck and at worst a signal of the end times.
I wanted gender in this universe to feel like unsteady ground, and I think (I hope) that readers can relate to that. One of the joys of writing Riverson was being able to create a protagonist who is reckoning with their gender in real time and in an extremely public way. Most of us have a lifetime of moments behind closed doors to give ourselves pep talks and gather our courage and decide what kind of 'me' we want to express, but this guy has just a few moments before he's thrust into the limelight.
And on the other you have The Rapacious who represents the absolute unhinged pleasure of writing a character who is untethered from gender constraint. The Rapacious shows up as male, female, and nonbinary at different points and is just horny and menacing every time. Between this character and some of the descriptions of participants in the Feast, I felt emboldened to revise my own personal thoughts on what constitutes a desirable entity and feed that back to my protagonist. That kind of openness definitely helped define Riverson's trajectory toward the end of the novella.
What work of yours should our readers check out while they wait to get their hands on a copy of Empire of the Feast?
First of all, thank you so so much for the thoughtful interview questions. It has been a blast to think through them and just noodle aloud on this book I spent so long turning over only in my head. It's wild to think it's going to be in anyone's hands at all!
Until then, if you like stories about people contending with questionable legacies and the weight of perilous mystical obligations, I have two story-games (or game-novels) out with Choice of Games. Avatar of the Wolf is about the living embodiment of the feral Wolf god chasing down the missing divinity, while Fate of the Storm Gods concerns an apprentice Weather Builder on a journey to correct aberrant weather and possibly changing the balance of power in the world en route.
Or, if you'd like to read something a bit horny and emotional you can check out my short piece "Duppy" that came out in Issue Three of Baffling Magazine.
And you can head to my site: Ben Makes Stuff for updates on everything else.
Empire of the Feast was an absolute blast to read. After this interview? I’m just amped to get to see whatever Bendi does next.
Go preorder Empire of the Feast via Neon Hemlock’s 2022 Novella Series Indiegogo campaign now! Neon Hemlock is doing some of the best work in the business right now, and this book is no exception. Don’t miss your chance to get your hands on it!
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.