Sunday, March 22, 2020

Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
Published: Tor, 2018
Series: Book 2 of the Interdependency

The Book:

The Interdependency, humanity's interstellar empire, is on the verge of collapse. The Flow, the extra-dimensional conduit that makes travel between the stars possible, is disappearing, leaving entire star systems stranded. When it goes, human civilization may go with it -- unless desperate measures can be taken.
Emperox Grayland II, the leader of the Interdependency, is ready to take those measures to help ensure the survival of billions. But nothing is ever that easy. Arrayed before her are those who believe the collapse of the Flow is a myth -- or at the very least, an opportunity that can allow them to ascend to power.
While Grayland prepares for disaster, others are preparing for a civil war, a war that will take place in the halls of power, the markets of business and the altars of worship as much as it will take place between spaceships and battlefields. The Emperox and her allies are smart and resourceful, but then so are her enemies. Nothing about this power struggle will be simple or easy... and all of humanity will be caught in its widening gyre.”
It’s been a while since my last review. In January, I was under a lot of stress at work.  After that, well, you know. International health crises also don’t make for low stress environments.  Things are still getting worse, but I feel like I’m in a stable enough position to start this up again.  I hope these book reviews at least are fun to read for some people who are similarly holed up in their houses, waiting for safety to return.
Now, relevant to the actual topic for today’s post, I reviewed the first book of the Interdependency series here.  My general conclusion there was that it was entertaining enough, but I felt like not much happened. I continued on to the second book of the trilogy, and I can say that I do not have the same complaint this time around.
My Thoughts:
An interesting aspect of this series is it’s exploration of the inability of humanity to cope with gradual catastrophes.  Climate change is a good example: scientists agree on what is likely to happen, and that action is needed. However, many of those in power resist addressing the crisis until the impacts become blindingly obvious, at which point it’s too late.  The crisis here is the breakdown of the Flow, which will eventually isolate each of humanity’s non-self-sufficient star systems. It’s expected that the societies in these systems will collapse, and then the people will die. It was both very believable and very frustrating to see people spending precious time ignoring the crisis, opting to scheme about their profits and political ambitions instead. Perhaps ten years ago, I might have claimed they were cardboard villains.  Today, I lament that so many humans seem to be made of cardboard.
Among the viewpoint characters, I most liked Cardenia and Marce. Cardenia is pretty good at political maneuvering, which is something neither her antagonists nor I really expected. She might not have been trained to be an Emperox, but she’s risen to the occasion remarkably well. I also appreciated seeing her consideration of how a power imbalance affects the ethics of her relationships. Regarding Marce, I appreciated his non-biased approach to his work, and his ego-free willingness to change his conclusions in the face of conflicting evidence. I think this is really the ideal stance to take as a scientist--the truth is more important than any one person’s authorial pride. Nadashe and Kiva were frustrating viewpoint characters in different ways. Nadashe is a petty villain, so I think my reaction to her was as intended. Regarding Kiva, I liked her personality, but it bothered me that she didn’t seem very competent at her job.  She comes through when it matters, but her approach to her work just seems, well, sloppy.
Finally, to address my complaint from the first book, there’s a lot of plot progress in The Consuming Fire. For one thing, the collapse is really happening now.  For all that some people want to ignore it, the impacts are already beginning to be felt. The political situation is also very volatile, and it’s beginning to seem likely that there will never be a return to the status quo. Last of all, an unexpected but really fun curveball adds another dimension to the story, complete with interesting new characters and societal implications. This storyline was my favorite part of the book, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise for other readers.  I expect to talk about this more in my eventual review of The Last Emperox (coming in April)
My Rating: 4/5 
The Consuming Fire continues the story begun in The Collapsing Empire, and I feel like it noticeably picked up the pace.  The collapse is happening, people are fighting amongst themselves instead of addressing it, and some newly uncovered information sheds a whole new light on the entire situation.  I especially liked reading about Marce and Cardenia, a good scientist and a smart, well-intentioned leader, respectively. Marce is responsible for discovering the imminent collapse, Cardenia must somehow organize humanity to survive it.  The future is not entirely without hope, with them at the helm, and I am looking forward to seeing how the story will be resolved in The Last Emperox.