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.

Novel Reviews (10/7/2019): Gods, Monsters, and Mercenaries

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Tor, October 2018)

monster baru
Cover Art by Sam Weber

Highly Recommended – The start of Seth Dickinson’s sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant backtracks a little, relating moments just prior to Tain Hu’s execution, as Baru fastens her chains and whispers in her ear before leading her down to the bluff where the waves will crush her against stone. That the two lovers share an intimate moment in plain view of witnesses without breaking their cover serves as both a reminder of the shocking events that transpired at the end of Traitor (as if anyone could forget) and of the new normal for readers. Now entrenched as a cryptarch in the Masquerade, Baru still has her secrets from the empire of masks but she can’t hide from us anymore.
The specter of Tain Hu’s death haunts Baru throughout The Monster Baru Cormorant. While her betrayal of Aurdwynn moves her closer to her goal—the destruction of the Masquerade—the loss of her lover at her own hands creates a split in Baru, where she must weigh her desire for revenge against the emotional cost of carrying it out. Her ambition drove her when she started, then quashed, the rebellion on Aurdwynn. Now entrenched in the imperial capital city of Falcrest, Baru finds herself amidst a dizzyingly complex and layered political guessing game with countless enemies looking to expose her secrets. Her mentor, the cryptarch Cairdine Farrier, deposits her right into the middle of a conflict with their mysterious neighbor to the south, the Oriati Mbo. Baru’s journey takes her on a collision course with old friends, vengeful military commanders, and a unique culture that stands in sharp contrast to the Masquerade.
Like its predecessor, The Monster Baru Cormorant has a dense and purposely convoluted plot, though you can add temporal and perspective shifts to all the thumbing through reports and notes and accounting ledgers this time around. If this kind of storytelling wonkiness didn’t put you off in the first book, you should have no problem adjusting to the heightened, brutal swirl of intrigue this time around. The first novel’s greatest strengths—its emotional core and its expansive world-building—remain intact.

Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, October 2018)

Thin Air
Design: David G. Stevenson and Susan Schultz; Illustration: Christian McGrath

Hakan Veil is a gene-enhanced gun-for-hire on Mars, strong-armed by the local police into playing bodyguard for Madison Madekwe, an auditor looking into corruption in the state-run lottery. When Madekwe disappears on his watch, Veil finds himself in a morass of corrupt officials and police, organized crime, corporations with conflicting interests and a revolutionary movement.
Thin Air spins off from Morgan’s 2007 novel Thirteen (known as Black Man in the UK), another noir-ish action novel about a gene-enhanced soldier caught in a whirlwind of corruption. While the action in that novel mostly took place on Earth, in Thin Air we get a first-hand look at COLIN (Colonial Initiative)-run Mars, and what life is like for an exiled “overrider” there.
Morgan’s knack for electrifying, hard-boiled prose and his dark, fatalistic worldview have long been his strongest assets as a writer, and he delivers the goods in Thin Air. He also has a good eye for detail and lived-in futuristic settings and kinetic action. But so much of the novel feels like old hat: the same bitter, violence-prone hero and cynical outlook, the over-the-top, bone-crushing action grind. The novel is fairly long and tries for an epic sweep, but often it is more bloated than sprawling.

Edges (Inverted Frontier Book 1), by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island, April 2019)

Edges // Linda Nagata
Cover Art by Sarah Anne Langton

Must Read! – The remnants of humanity hide in the furthest reaches of known space on the planet Deception Well, on the lookout for any appearance of the Chenzeme, automated alien warships programmed to eradicate all life in the universe. They believe their worst fears realized when a Chenzeme ship arrives in their system, but the crisis is short-lived: Urban, a long absent member of the expedition that founded the settlement on Deception Well, discovered how to overtake the Chenzeme ships and has piloted this one, called Dragon, home. The new scientific endeavor he proposes would take humanity backward through its frontier to the Hallowed Vasties—the legendary systems surrounding the cradle of their civilization devastated by the Chenzeme incursion—to uncover both the artifacts of their past and to discover what has replaced them.
Edges is the first volume of a new space opera series by Nagata, who most recently has penned a sequence of stunning near-future military thrillers (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man). If it sounds like a lot of backstory for a first-in-a-series novel, it is. Inverted Frontier is a sequel series to her Nanotech Succession, four standalone novels that speculate, across huge leaps in time, how humanity might evolve through the use of nanotechnology. While there is a lot of future history to unpack, Nagata provides more than enough background for Edges to work as an entry point for new readers. I would also propose that new readers then take their own backward journey of discovery and read the Nanotech novels in reverse chronological order, starting with its far-future conclusion Vast, and ending with the near-future prequel Tech Heaven.
Edges takes its time setting the table: it is more than a third of the way through before the expedition makes its first major discovery. The slow burn is worth it; Nagata depicts a human civilization so far removed from our present understanding that time is almost meaningless, and the notion of life correlating to physical presence was long ago abandoned. Its technology a hybrid of human and alien, both near-unfathomable in complexity and capability that even the brilliant minds who wield it don’t always fully understand it. All this background comes in handy when the crew of Dragon encounter something so sublime and terrifying it regards the Chenzeme with little more than curious indifference. Nagata raises the tension one notch at a time as the ship moves closer to its destination, and by the end, somehow creates stakes that even a god would fear. Edges will satisfy any readers of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy jonesing for a new “big idea” space opera operating on that scale.

 

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Memory called empireMust Read! – Ambassador Mahit Dzmare, the protagonist of Arkady Martine’s debut space opera A Memory Called Empire, has more than one identity crisis on her hands: she has a deep affinity for the empire that wants to annex her home and she also literally has someone else’s personality nested in her brain. Dzmare’s internal conflicts correlate with the external ones that drive the novel’s plot. Living within the Teixcalaan Empire has been her heart’s desire since childhood, yet her primary aim as ambassador is to keep Teixcalaan from assuming control of her home, Lsel Station. This same conflict between personal desire and professional duty may have gotten her predecessor Yskandr Aghavn killed. It is Yskandr whose “imago” (an impression of the man built from his recorded memories) is implanted in her head. Imago technology is a Lsel state secret, yet the Teixcalaanlitzlim find it during Yskandr’s autopsy, and this discovery could embolden those who wish for Teixcalaan to consume Lsel.
To the author’s credit, her plotting is far less complicated than her world-building. Martine is a Byzantinist, and her Teixcalaan society is as relentlessly sophisticated as her discipline implies. At one point Mahit even refers to her passion for Teixcalaan ciphers as “byzantine”, and one can presume that when Teixcalaan survives but in memory and in the pages of history books will also invoke its name adjectively. The Teixcalaanlitzlim are a people in love with the idea of itself, where individual identity ties to a variety of cultural meanings and referents and even simple acts of communication come with layers of contextual baggage. The story, however, has a straightforward goal for its hero to achieve, muddied as it is by reactionary obstructions and elusive secrets. Mahit and her long-outdated, malfunctioning imago must find out how and why Yskandr was killed before forces inside and out overtake Teixcalaan and Lsel.
While the plot may be clear and linear, the novel’s architecture leaves room for more elaborate readings. Except for a few structured divergences, the tight third-person POV almost exclusively follows Mahit Dzmare from her arrival at the Teixcalaanli capital city-planet through the end. Those divergences—a prologue, epilogue, three interludes, and multiple historical excerpts and quotes heading each chapter—refer the reader to the broader political and historical circumstances at play. Together with Dzmare’s immersion in her beloved Teixcalaanli culture, Martine’s project offers a snapshot of a future history at least as rich and variegated as found in Frank Herbert’s Dune Chronicles, with almost limitless potential for return visits.
A Memory Called Empire does an exceptional job of balancing precise, consequential storytelling with layered world-building. Explicating a culture as multifaceted as Teixcalaan has the potential to overwhelm readers with exegetic digressions and overstuffed lexicons but Martine keeps the exposition plot-centered without painting her presumably copious notes and research all over the page. The novel is also rife with the kinds of amenities that inspire fannish devotion, such as the delightful (and precious) Teixcalaanli naming system. What really makes the novel work, though, are the fundamentals: Dzmare and her confidants Three Seagrass and Twelve Azealia make for excellent company, and the suspenseful, well-paced mystery plot keeps the pages turning with escalating tension and perfectly measured revelations.

Novel Reviews – March 2019

Ancestral Night (White Space Book 1), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga, March 2019)

Ancestral NightRecommended – An early moment in Elizabeth Bear’s expansive new space opera Ancestral Night has narrator Haimey Dz offer a meta-commentary on the ancient, 19th century novels she reads during the long hours spent drifting through space: “They’re great for space travel because they were designed for people with time on their hands. Middlemarch. Gorgeous, but it just goes on and on.” Ancestral Night is a busy and boisterous novel, complex and beautifully composed, but also with a tendency to labor its points.
Haimey and her team of salvagers spend their time searching for derelict ships and abandoned tech in “white space”, ripples in space-time that enable faster than light travel. On their latest job, a nano-parasite created by a mysterious, long vanished race called the Koregoi infects Haimey, guiding her mind to an advanced Korogoi ship hidden inside a black hole. They aren’t the only salvagers who know about the ship, and Haimey finds herself on a collision course with some very dangerous revolutionaries willing to use the ship to settle their score with the far-reaching galactic society known as the Synarche.
Recalling the Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, Bear depicts a space-faring civilization made up of a multitude of alien cultures and intelligences that uses advanced technology to care for its citizens needs. Differences compound the deeper Bear takes us into her world: unlike the Culture with its artificial Minds, the Synarche chooses its civil servants by draft lottery, doing away with the corruptible governing elites that less enlightened societies create.
Bear also takes technological augmentation to a new level. Haimey, like most of the Synarche’s citizens, has implants that allow her to interface with technology as easily as most of us breathe. These implants also allow her to turn emotions on and off and even alter her personality and psychological makeup at will. The cultish creche that raised her used them to brainwash her and make her complicit in their crimes, and later the Synarche uses them to remove her memories of those crimes. Bear highlights the philosophical conundrums inherent in these technological and social innovations and the complicated notions of consent that attend them.
Ancestral Night is saturated with moral and political ambition. Rich with conflict and action, though often slowed down by explication and discourse, the story sometimes loses its momentum. I look forward to the second volume in this planned duology with the hope that it moves at a more studious pace.

The True Queen (Sorcerer to the Crown Book 2), by Zen Cho (Ace, March 2019)

The True QueenHighly Recommended – When an author is building a sequel, the path of least resistance is to figure out what the reader wants (or thinks they want) and give it to them. The better option, though, is to write the book readers didn’t know they wanted. That’s what Zen Cho delivers in The True Queen, the standalone sequel to her popular and acclaimed Regency-era fantasy novel Sorcerer to the Crown.
Rather than pick up with the further adventures of Prunella and Zacharias Whyte, The True Queen tells the story of two sisters, Muna and Sakti, who are found by the powerful Malay sorceress Mak Genggang on her home island of Janda Baik. Muna has no magical ability at all while Sakti has an abundance. Both appear to have been cursed, and the suspected culprit carries a surname that readers of Sorcerer to the Crown will be familiar with: Midsomer. Mak Genggang ships the sisters off to England, for Sakti to apprentice under the Sorceress Royal Prunella Whyte, and for Muna to keep her sister company. While taking a shortcut through Fairy to their destination, Sakti disappears, leaving Muna to fend for herself when she reaches England. Pretending at having magic while scheming to find a way back into Fairy, Muna befriends Prunella’s schoolmate Henrietta Stapleton, who has trials of her own to face.
The plotting in The True Queen finds the author weaving together several different threads, including a few left dangling at the end of its predecessor. I am impressed by the author’s ability to fashion a satisfying sequel to Sorcerer to the Crown while relegating that novel’s major players to minor rolls. I also found the structure of the novel strikingly democratic, shuffling through a multitude of perspectives from chapter to chapter while still keeping its focus on Muna and her hero’s journey.
The True Queen is just as enchanting as Sorcerer to the Crown and provides ample evidence that this wonderful setting has many novels worth of material for the author to mine from.

The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency Book 2), by John Scalzi (Tor, October 2018)

consuming fireRecommended – In his second Interdependency novel, John Scalzi picks up the threads he left dangling at the end of The Collapsing Empire: Kiva Lagos settles into her role as custodian of the House of Nohamapetan only to get a front-row seat to its matriarch’s treachery; Marce Claremont makes a stunning discovery (or re-discovery) while studying the collapse of the Flow streams; and Grayland II uses every tool at her disposal to consolidate power and convince the masses that the Flow collapse is real and urgent.
This sequel comes out of the gate swinging, with Scalzi’s crunchy humor and hyper-efficient prose delivering a raucous mini-epic of a prologue that sets up Grayland II’s use of her position as leader of the Interdependency Church to advance her agenda. Scalzi is at his best when he offers a heady but digestible mix of action, humor and philosophical inquiry, and his opening salvo delivers all three in spades. The rest of The Consuming Fire offers plenty of the first two but seems willing to leave us hanging with the questions it poses about mixing church and state and the role both play in civic life. Perhaps the problem is that it spends all its capital on the lives of the governing elite while the lives of the governed are little more than a blurry rabble taking up space in the background.
There are a lot of great action scenes and character moments in The Consuming Fire, and it has a “less talk more rock” edge over its more annotative predecessor. Two books in, the Interdependency is entertaining enough to satisfy Scalzi’s fans; here’s hoping some of its still dormant seeds will germinate in the next book.

A Star-Wheeled Sky, Brad R. Torgersen (Baen, December 2018)

Star Wheeled SkyHumanity once spread throughout the stars in huge, slow generation ships, but one day they discovered a massive alien superhighway called the Waywork. Humanity could use the Waywork to fast travel between habitable systems and a vast galactic human civilization was born. No trace of the alien race that built the Waywork remained. A thousand years later human civilization has splintered into five Starstates, with the two largest—egalitarian Constellar and the merciless, imperialistic Nautilan—mired in bloody territorial conflict. When a brand-new waypoint appears on the map, the race is on for the two warring states to claim the territory as their own. Solving the mystery of why the waypoint appeared and of the strange new world they find there may be bigger than any dispute between the two powers.
Author Torgersen packs his military space opera with the kind of hard sf action detail-obsessed nerds drool over, and the setting is keenly imagined. However, the stock characters—the gruff-but-earnest flyboy, more-than-meets-the-eye space princess, and vicious, snarling antagonist—are one-dimensional. This could work well as a series, assuming the revelations to its riddles live up to the hype.

Ten Thousand Thunders, by Brian Trent (Flame Tree, October 2018)

ten thousand thundersBrian Trent has spent time in the universe of his new novel Ten Thousand Thunders before, with his “War Hero” series of short stories. It’s obvious he’s thought about this setting a lot and packs a ton of detail into it. Set in a post-collapse future where technology and corporate dominance reignite with a vengeance and death is a minor inconvenience for those who can afford to clone a new body to house their consciousness. There’s a little bit of Altered Carbon meets The Expanse in its mix of bloody, hard-boiled action and solar-system spanning political maneuvering.
The plot machinations of Ten Thousand Thunders are so byzantine it’s impossible to encapsulate them, but for better or worse the novel follows InterPlanetary Council investigator Gethin Bryce as he tries to figure out who blew up the shuttle he was riding in, and why. He crosses paths with revolutionary soldier Celeste Segarra, whose organization wants to level the playing field for the haves and have nots, and together they try to keep their heads attached to their necks while uncovering a conspiracy as old as humanity itself.
About two-thirds of the way through I realized the plotting was just going to keep getting denser and denser, and even then, nothing prepared me for how outrageous it was going to get. The action is tough, the pacing perhaps a bit too fiendish, and its final revelations a little hard to swallow.