The second book of the Interdependency series is quite a surprise. It doesn’t fit the usual role of a second part of a trilogy, where the plot thickens, the crisis (or a number of them) is established and the main characters are left in cliffhanger positions for the inevitable happy ending of the third book. Instead, The Consuming Fire maintains Scalzi’s signature easy-going flow, with little to worry about, plenty of entertainment and thinly veiled political satire. In other words, it’s a great, light read.
The first book in the series, The Collapsing Empire, established the fictional universe where humanity resides: a galactic empire with worlds that are not self-sufficient, and instead are interdependent on each other and must trade goods to survive. This is being maintained by a series of wormholes that connect the worlds. The empire is run by the imperial family, which controls access to these wormholes, as well as having the monopoly for manufacturing spaceships and weapons. Other noble houses have monopolies in certain products, making them interdependent on each other as well. As the old emperor lay dying, he revealed his successor that the wormholes were about to collapse, cutting the worlds off from each other and doom them all to death, save for the world of End, which was the only one to support life on the surface. Unfortunately, the wormhole to End was the first to close.
In the second book, we learn a little more about the history of the empire. The first empress was a figurehead of the Wu noble family, who was presented as a visionary and a prophet. She founded a faux religion, which helped to convert the masses to her cause of imperial unification. The current empress, Grayland II, finds herself unable to convince the wider public that the wormholes are about to collapse. Her main source of this information is Lord Marce, a minor nobleman and mathematician, whose work is being ridiculed by nearly everyone else. As a result, Grayland switches tactics and starts claiming that she, too, had received prophecies, regarding this upcoming catastrophe. While the church is debating on what to do – after all, the power of prophecy by emperors is part of the dogma, but in reality, nobody ever believed them – the noble houses and parliament are concerned that Grayland is just attempting to usurp more power to herself. This is fertile ground for Grayland’s old nemesis, the house of Nohamapetan’s, which tried to assassinate her in the first book. They join forces with other houses, most notably Grayland’s own house of Wu, to depose of her.
Meanwhile, Marce, with the help of another mathematician, determines that with the collapsing wormholes, new ones will open, albeit on a very temporary basis. One of the first to open would lead to a colony that had been lost many centuries prior. Marce joins an expedition there and finds that the colonists actually adapted to the new conditions, and a handful of them survived. He also finds an old spaceship from a human world from outside the empire, which nobody knew even existed, run by a computerized version of its old owner. After their own transport is blown to pieces by hired pirates, Marce and a few others use this ship to return home.
Back in the capital, the carefully prepared deposition of the empress comes to a sudden stop, when Grayland finds out the details and invites all the co-conspirators to a party on the eve of the planned coup and promptly has everyone arrested. The book ends with Marce cryptically announcing that he may have a way to transfer humanity to End, to start a new life after the wormholes fail.
As with other books by Scalzi, there is almost no drama or tension, but the entertainment value is off the charts. Everyone is either witty and charming, or extremely idiosyncratic in an offbeat way. The author revels on spelling out the exact conclusion I’m just thinking about, and I’m a sucker for this kind of humor. As a result, the usual dark and brooding middle book of a trilogy doesn’t happen here. Grayland and Marce are in even less danger than in the previous book, their enemies are even more inept, and even the imminent collapse of the society doesn’t seem so bad anymore. The little tension that is there is quickly diffused through another returning character, Lady Kiva, who serves as the comedic relief, but also enables the reader to enjoy any swift and brutal revenge fantasies he may harbor about the antagonists. The cast of characters, as well as the dialog-driven plot, make certain that this book is more a situational comedy than space opera, and Scalzi excels at the former.
For a change, I didn’t even mind Scalzi’s political satire here. His depiction of the Church of Interdependency is simply taking the Christian Apostles’ Creed to its logical conclusion. In the Confession, people declare their belief not only in the Holy Trinity, but also in the saints and the church itself. Here, the church is even more adamant about people believing in the institution, rather than any dogma. The wormhole collapse, and especially the people’s attitude to the predictions, closely mimics the global climate change discussion we are currently having. In a stroke of absolute genius, Scalzi predicts that in order to convince the masses of the upcoming doom, the elites must manufacture a prophet who’d gain cult-like following. As a result, Grayland mimics the real-world Greta Thurnberg, with similar theatrics, and later in the book, sparking a near religious hysteria after the first observed wormhole collapse.
I have nothing to bad to say about The Consuming Fire. It is very entertaining, and I was very positively surprised at how pleasant the book was, considering its placement in a trilogy. The prose flows well, the protagonists are likable, and the villains are dastardly. This is an unassuming book of pure fun, without any pretense of forcing the readers think for themselves. It serves as a wonderful break from heavier literature, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. I’m already eager to get my hands on the conclusion in 2020.