Rating: 6.6 (out of 10)
First, the good news – The Collapsing Empire is a smart, entertaining, easily digestible page turner. In other words, it’s a John Scalzi novel. It’s also a nice bit of old fashioned sci-fi fun – heroes do heroic things and villains do villainous things, the story has nice momentum and the world-building is fun.
Trying to figure out why I felt unsatisfied by the book is a little harder to explain, especially when I basically had a good time reading it. I think it comes down to the fact that it proclaims itself a “first book in a series”, and feels like it went a little overboard with its first-bookiness. The setup takes too long and there’s way more info-dumping than we need to get acclimated to this world. There’s a lot of talkiness in the middle (and I mean A LOT) and while much of it is fun Scalzian banter, it wore me down a little bit. The action started to pick up and there were some nice turns and reversals in the last few chapters, but as soon as it really felt like it was gathering steam for an epic climax, the book literally just stops happening.
And by “stops happening”, I mean I kept turning the last page back and forth to see if the rest of the book would appear. I wondered for a second if there was a glitch in the Kindle edition that accidently left off the last chapter or two and that I would get an apologetic email from Amazon any minute telling me to go to my account and download the update. Alas, no, the ending of the book did not magically appear by the power of my will, nor did Amazon send a patch. Scalzi just said “Nope – saving it for the sequel, folks!”
Imagine, if you will, that Scalzi had decided not to write the last two chapters of Old Man’s War. I mean, imagine that for a second. Perry convinces Jane to put him on the team, then they get ready to speed off for the epic battle with the fate of humankind in the balance – and it stops there. Do you think “Don’t worry! There’s a sequel coming! We’ll get to that later!” would have made that book the classic that it is today?
I guess that’s the difference between a hungry writer and a well fed one. I don’t think this book would have ended the way it did if this had been Scalzi’s first novel and he was trying to build a readership. When he decided to end The Collapsing Empire the way he did, he was leaning on the good will he has engendered with readers over the years, and I don’t think that’s something any writer should fall back on at any point in their career. You run the risk of taking your readership for granted, and that’s exactly how The Collapsing Empire made me feel.
I realize his approach to this series is different from OMW – as in he’s telling one big story through a series of novels rather than writing a series of stand-alone sequels – but that feels more like an excuse than an enticement. And, yes, I’m going to buy the sequel. I like these characters and this world and I want to see what happens next, though that still would have been true even if Scalzi had written an actual ending for this book. At least in that case, it would have left me ONLY wanting more instead of also feeling a little cheated.