Book Review: The Last Emperox (Interdependency 3) by John Scalzi

The Interdependency series is one of the rare trilogies where each sequel gets better than the previous book, and despite a single linear storyline, each novel has its own distinct character.  I was unimpressed with the first book, considered the second one a good, light read, and was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of the last part, as well as the emotions it managed to drag out of me.  If Scalzi was a new author, I’d think I saw him mature throughout the series, but being a veteran writer, this was probably a deliberate, cynical plot to keep his readers engaged to the very end, and I love him for it.

A quick recap of the first two books.  The story takes place in Interdependency, a galactic empire where humans survive on inhospitable planets or orbiting habitats, which are dependent on each other.  A scientist, Marce, is one of the few who understand that the network of wormholes that allows for faster than light travel is about to collapse, cutting planets off from each other and dooming their inhabitants to a slow death.  Emperor Grayland the Second, the ruler of the Interdependency, is a young woman who seems like easy prey for manipulation by one of the most powerful noble houses, the Nohamapetan, represented by the scheming Nadashe.  Grayland, with the help of the foul-mouthed Kiva (member of the Lagos noble house), and especially thanks to a technology that lets her spy on everyone’s electronic communication, exposes a coup attempt by Nadashe and her clan, and has everyone involved quickly arrested.  Marce, meanwhile, is studying the Flow, which is the in-universe name of the wormholes.  Before being arrested (and promptly escaping), Nadashe gained control over the only planet that would support life on its surface, but by the end of book two, Marce discovered that a new wormhole would temporarily open, allowing the empire to send in its own troops.

In the third book, Grayland is multitasking: trying to have a meaningful love life with Marce, devising a plan to take back End, the planet that supports life, and evacuating as many people there as possible.  In the meantime, Marce is trying to gather more data to support his new theory, according to which it should be possible to create new temporary wormholes and position them in a way where entire human habitats could pass between planets.  Nadashe is busy plotting another coup against Grayland, and Kiva is busy managing Nadashe’s business, which was placed under direct imperial supervision.  Kiva catches drift of Nadashe’s plans, and in order to learn more, she and Grayland devise a plan to get Kiva into the inner circle of the conspirators.  Nadashe has instead Kiva kidnapped.  Kiva manages to escape, but when she comes back to the imperial capital, she learns that Grayland had been successfully assassinated, the fleet that was preparing to take back End had been stopped, and Nadashe was elected to be the next Emperor, pending some administrative nonsense with the state church.  Nadashe promptly throws Kiva in jail, from which Kiva just as promptly escapes.  During Nadashe’s coronation, Grayland appears as a sentient hologram.  As all emperors before her, she had her brain scanned and now lives as a virtual being.  She reveals that she knew of the assassination plot and willingly got herself killed, in order to gain full control over the empire’s entire technological infrastructure.  And to expose Nadashe one last time.  She then proceeds to release trade secrets held by the noble houses to the entire world, thus stripping them of their monopolies on various goods, and to declare Kiva as her legal successor.  Kiva quickly throws Nadashe into one cell with her surviving family members, as there no greater punishment than to have them interact with each other.  The story ends with the promise that most of humanity would be eventually saved through Marce’s research, while Marce himself is preparing for an exploratory mission to find old Earth and possibly other colonies that were cut off from the Interdependency.

Some call the Interdependency series a space opera, but I wouldn’t label it such (as if it actually mattered).  There are no huge sweeping actions, and the threat of violence is usually more effective than any kind of battle.  If anything, it is more akin to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, with its galactic empire, with nearly all action taking place in boardrooms.  The main difference between the content of those two series is the much shorter time frame of Scalzi’s series.  For the author, this genre is the ideal vehicle for his quick-witted writing.  The dialogues flow fast, with exchanges full of biting and witty one-liners.  Scalzi downplays any actual action to the point where he actively avoids the final military confrontation entirely and has the conflict fizzle out.

Instead, focus is placed on character development and the idiosyncrasies of the various protagonists.  And here the final book of the series is vastly superior to its predecessors.  I criticized the first book, The Collapsing Empire, that it read as a thinly veiled political allegory to global warming.  That the denial around the collapsing wormholes was basically climate denial in our world and time.  In that book, characters served more as vehicles to drive the plot.  In the second book, The Consuming Fire, the characters started playing a much more important role.  They were wonderfully idiosyncratic and, in that way, entertaining, but quite one-dimensional and without any development.  It was a beautifully entertaining read, but I didn’t feel any affinity to any of the protagonists.  Scalzi changed the game in his third book.  He made the characters vulnerable because they suddenly had things to lose.  Grayland had to stay in power for long enough to facilitate the evacuation of her citizens.  She also fell in love with Marce and asked him to marry her.  Kiva also fell in love, despite herself.  Only Nadashe remained the single-minded cartoonish villain she’d always been.  As a result, I began to care about the protagonists.  I immersed myself into this book much more than its predecessors, and I got emotional at the final reveal.  And I won’t lie: even though I was shocked and sad about Grayland’s sacrifice, I was far more satisfied about Nadashe’s punishment.  I’m a creature of very basic needs…

As it is customary for the author, the prose is fast-flowing, eminently readable and entertaining.  It still remains one of the lighter reads, but I’m happy that Scalzi abandoned any moralizing, which established a jarring contrast to his style, and instead focused on a not too plausible but very pleasing plot.  The only thing I could not get over is the author’s patronizing repetition of basic implications.  Sometimes, he writes as if his readers were morons, repeating the same explanation over and over again.  This is particularly obvious when he describes Grayland’s interaction with her long dead ancestors, who take the form of sentient holograms when she calls on them.  Every single time this happens, Scalzi reminds his readers that the holograms’ display of emption is fake because they don’t feel any emotion and just want to look more authentic to Grayland.  I got it after the first explanation, but perhaps I’m exceptionally bright, and some people may have needed a repetition or two.  But reading the same explanation every few chapters is very tiresome.

Despite the author’s annoying habit to repeat basic facts, the book is a fantastic read.  It is exceptionally well designed to draw the reader in, so that he consumes it in a few sittings.  It is not only a wonderful conclusion to the trilogy, but also the culmination of the increasing quality of the prose.  What started as a satire to the current political climate turned into a wonderful story with quirky yet likable characters, plenty of fun political intrigue and satisfactory ending where the bad guys get what they deserve.  The series does not offer any profound revelations, but often it’s nice to sit down and be entertained by a good, light read.  For those times, there’s the Interdependency series.

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