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

Last EmperoxRecommended – Through no fault of its own, The Last Emperox couldn’t have arrived at a better time. John Scalzi’s novels are uniformly brief and briskly paced, with rapid fire action and dialogue—in other words, ready-made for binge reading. And with the current coronavirus pandemic forcing people to spend most of their free time at home, that’s what many people are doing. Haven’t read the first two books in Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy? Each can be gobbled up in a single sitting while you hunker down for the evening, then you can slide right into the freshly printed one by day three. The series is also thematically timely; civilization coming apart at the seams through neglect, short-sightedness and inaction in the face of an unforeseen cataclysm sound familiar? Though completed months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, alarming echoes of current day events reverberate from the pages of The Last Emperox. It’s a not uncommon trait in science fiction, nor is it surprising coming from this science fiction author, who has managed to keep his finger on today’s pulse for much of his writing career.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of The Interdependency, it is set fifteen centuries into our future in an empire spanning multiple star systems. All these systems, save one, are incapable of supporting human life on their own, so each depends on the whole to survive. The whole is, not unexpectedly, ruled by a small cadre of wealthy elites whose families control all commerce between systems. Intersystem commerce is only made possible by traversing the Flow, naturally occurring streams that cheat the otherwise untenable distances of time and space. Discovery of the impending collapse of the entire system of Flow streams is therefore a civilization-ending disaster.

I found the opening volume of the trilogy (The Collapsing Empire) entertaining, if uneven; too reliant on long passages of exposition, overly plot-centered and heavy on oration. The abrupt ending was also jarring, coming right as the story was picking up steam. This was likely intentional—a feature of its being intended not as a standalone but as the first third of a complete story—but I still found it lacking. I thought the first sequel (The Consuming Fire) was a little more comfortable in its own skin and possessed of a much more satisfying (if only temporary) outcome. The Last Emperox is perhaps the most neatly balanced of the three volumes, a harmonious convergence of well-oiled plot machine, smart-alecky dialogue and fully rounded characters.

The ostensible hero of the story is Cardenia Wu-Patrick, also known as Emperox Grayland II, the reluctant leader of the Interdependency in this time of unfathomable crisis. When The Last Emperox begins, Grayland II has just survived another deposition plot (following a prior assassination plot) only to find myriad others sprouting up hydra-like in their place. None of this bodes well for her and her scientist-lover Marce Claremont’s goal of figuring out how to transport the entirety of Human civilization to a single planet that has neither the room nor the resources to handle a sudden, massive influx of migration. Grayland is also aided by shrewd, potty-mouthed Lady Kiva Lagos, tasked with unraveling the various plots against the Emperox, as well as the artificial construct known as the Memory Room, which houses facsimiles of all the previous Emperox. This is where Scalzi’s grand design engages with current events: questions of having the leadership qualities necessary to mitigate a catastrophe are front and center, of the willingness of the few to sacrifice the many for personal gain, of the wisdom (or lack thereof) in concentrating power in the hands of those few to begin with, allow Scalzi to flex his philosophical and political muscles with his customary piquancy.

But if The Last Emperox represents the culmination of the trilogy’s strengths, so too do its faults climax. Taking its cue from Marvel, Star Wars, and most other blockbuster franchises, Scalzi’s Interdependency espouses an axiomatic neoliberal worldview, one in which the predations of the greedy elite class can only be countered by putting our faith in other, more benevolent ruling elites and the martial forces they command. This strategy can acknowledge class struggle while discreetly tip-toeing around it, since (according to this philosophy) the unwashed masses have no other legitimate recourse for bettering their condition than to hope someone rich and powerful will handle it for them. It is even more frustrating that this novel both acknowledges and shrugs at this position in the same breath.

Reservations aside, I still enjoy a good blockbuster as much as the next person. So shelter in place, microwave some popcorn and have a rollicking good time with one of the more appealing sci-fi writers of his generation.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2019

Featured image by Ashley Mackenzie from “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270, January 31, 2019

BCS 270
Cover Art: “Dreams of Atlantis” by Flavio Bolla

The narrator of Natalia Theodoridou’s short vignette “To Stab with a Rose” reveals an odd custom from her homeland, involving dancers on a frozen lake in spring choosing lovers by offering them a rose or a knife. The rose means you get no play, and the knife means you get cut and the lovemaking lasts for as long as the wound stays open. Unceasing war has since forced her to flee her homeland, and she now works as a servant in a foreign land. She pines after a fellow servant girl, who’s not in to her like that, while frequently being summoned to the bedchamber of her mistress, who is. As an internal monologue about her pain over the loss of her homeland and customs there are some nice passages here. Trying to keep a sense of one’s own culture in a place that doesn’t understand or accept it is a double-edged sword – the very thing that keeps you grounded in your identity can also distance you from others and leave you vulnerable to exploitation. The conflation of love with open wounds is an interesting, if grisly, metaphor.
When we meet the healer Eefa at the beginning of Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, she is fleeing the city of Xot and the Emperor’s endless war machine. Eefa’s pregnant wife Talaan, a famed warrior and the Emperor’s Lion of Xot, tracks her down and convinces her to return, promising her that their new daughter will be a healer like her, not a soldier. Eefa relents and returns with her, but soon learns that the Emperor’s will trumps even that of the great Lion of Xot. Harrow builds an interesting culture in this story, one where women are bred to be soldiers and pregnancy isn’t an excuse to keep one from the battlefield. I liked that titles such as “husband” and “emperor” were not gendered when describing a person’s role in society. The choices that Eefa and Talaan make at the end are touching, and the final image is stark and memorable.

Tor.com 1/23/2019 & 1/30/2019

HIs Footsteps
Cover Art by Kashmira Sarode

I love the groundwork Mimi Mondal lays for her story “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”. Binu is a trapeze artist for the Majestic Oriental Circus in India, who also plays the character of Alladin for a real-life jinni’s illusion show. The jinni, Shehzad Marid, trusts only Binu with the care of his lamp. This makes Binu his de facto master, though Binu doesn’t see it that way. While performing at the wedding for the raja’s daughter in Thripuram, a devadasi (holy courtesan), convinces Binu to let her run away with the circus, which has deadly consequences for all of them. There’s so much to savor in story—the warm friendship between Binu and Shehzad, the unconventional daily life of the circus troupe—that the letdown of the story’s ending sank lower than it should have. The climax makes up its own rules, and the resolution comes too easily.
Lynette grew up in the circus. After spurning the advances of the escape artist, he chains her up and throws her in the water tank to drown. She is rescued by a boy in a mirror who becomes her boyfriend/companion, even though he is only present as her reflection. He disappears when she is sixteen, only to reappear years later when someone is hunting down anyone with a connection to him. The title of J.Y. Yang’s new story “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a bit on the nose, don’t you think? I appreciated that all three title characters had a POV section of the story, though in some ways I would have preferred it stay with Lynette, who is the hero and whose section has the longest word count. Magic is an accepted part of daily life so there’s a weird casualness to everything that goes on in the story, even when it seems like the characters should act with a little more urgency. The writing has an unforced charm, like most of Yang’s work; I suppose not every story has to ratchet up the tension to 11, even when the protagonist is being hunted by a serial killer.

Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019

Apex-Magazine-Nook-117
Cover Art by Julia Griffin

The brilliant concept that drives Izzy Wasserstein’s “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is that magic users transform into the thing they specialize in. In Danae’s case, it’s spiders, and she has a complicated relationship with her houseplant of a mother. Danae works as a courier for Pliny (books of course), who sends her on a job to clients who turn out to be fly cultists, who want to sacrifice her in a mysterious ritual. What starts as a straightforward chase story evolves into a meditation on cities and the people and myths and social structures that hold them together. Traverse is a mythical city filled with as much corruption, inequality, and structural decay as any real one, suspended over a chasm called the Drop by a massive spider’s web—an astounding visual metaphor, and one that Wasserstein uses to weave together a variety of thematic strands. Danae muses on the perception gap between rich and poor: the weave is tighter in the rich parts of town, where folks don’t have to worry about gaps in the walkway, while Danae prefers “to get clear of those claustrophobic streets” where she can “dash across open spaces” and “feel the web… beneath her bare feet.” An outstanding tale in a vivid and inventive setting.
Amadis escapes from their abusive Fey lover Kinnear, who doesn’t give up so easy in Hayley Stone’s suspenseful “Cold Iron Comfort”. The story does a good job of depicting the trauma abuse survivors suffer, and the climax contrives a clever solution to Amadis’ plight. I liked the way the author expressed Amadis’ gradual understanding of their gender fluidity.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

*** “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, by Izzy Wasserstein

* “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy”, by J.Y. Yang