The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
In The Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi introduced us to an interstellar empire called The Interdependency, a collection of far-flung human habitats connected by a quantum event called the Flow. The Interdependency is ruled by an Emperox, and a new Emperox, one who never considered herself in the line of succession and never wanted the role, had just been crowned. At this time, Grayland II, as she named herself, discovered that the Flow was starting to collapse. There was powerful mathematical and empirical evidence that the collapses or shifts in the Flow would continue, cutting off planets from one another for millennia.
Book two of THE INTERDEPENDENCY, The Consuming Fire, published in 2018, picks up shortly after the end of the first book. Emperox Grayland, who goes by Cardenia in her few private moments, has survived several assassination attempts and has arrested one of the perpetrators. She is trying to force her parliament and the wealthy merchant Houses to take steps to plan for the shifts in the Flow, but many have chosen not to believe her, since believing and working on that plan would divert energy away from making a profit. In at least one case, and probably more, heads of the merchant families accept the Emperox’s projections and see the collapsing Flow as a short-term opportunity to amass power and wealth instead of the humanitarian crisis it is. And the primary family moving against her has not been neutralized.
The Consuming Fire was a pure delight to read. While book one largely developed the world of the Interdependency, The Consuming Fire picks up with political action very early, as young Grayland II announces to the Executive Council and the clergy (as with the Church of England, Grayland as Emperox is also the head of the Church of the Interdependency), that, like the founder of the Interdependency, Rachela I, she has begun having visions. This causes consternation, and plays into the hands of Grayland’s enemies, who see a pretext to have her removed as Emperox.
The murderous Nohamapetan family allies with a branch of Grayland’s own family to overthrow her, and the imprisoned Nadashe Nohamapetan is still a threat. Fortunately, Grayland has assets as well: the mathematician Lord Marce, the genuine badass Lady Kiva Lagos, and the Memory Room, an AI that gives her access to the memories of every single previous Emperox.
While much of the action takes place in and around the royal capital of The Hub, there is a space opera section, when another stream in the Flow opens, temporarily opening a passage to a colony that’s been lost for eight hundred years. Lord Marce and a group of scientists go there. What they discover changes the nature of the problem and introduces an intriguing new character, Monsieur Chenevert. In the immediate term, Chenevert is helpful to Marce; in the longer term, he seems like someone who has his own interests… and one of those is the Memory Room.
The adventure in space, the political “strategery” back home, make The Consuming Fire a page-turner. I read it in one sitting. Scalzi’s fluid, breezy prose helps with this; action sequences flow, banter is bantery and the exposition is folded in at exactly the right places. Lady Kiva is a delight, whether she is verbally fencing with a lawyer or a countess — or physically fencing. (Note: there is no actual sword-fighting in the book, but Kiva does punch someone out.)
I liked watching how Grayland, who is a person trying to do good, outwits her enemies, especially at the end with an “invitation-only” reception. This was an interesting moment in the book for me, because this is one area where I had to work to suspend disbelief, mostly when the Countess Nohamapetan shouts out something self-incriminating in a public, official setting, something I think her daughter also did in The Collapsing Empire. It’s implausible, but it was so satisfying. Also, just to nit-pick, Scalzi went to great, great lengths to set up a pun based on Hamlet. Maybe too many lengths. I’m just saying.
By the end of The Consuming Fire, a combination of new information and information that had been hidden for centuries has changed the nature of the problem with the Flow slightly. Nadashe is still at large with a big wad of cash, and all roads seem to lead to the planet of End. (They just don’t lead away from End once you get there.) Cardenia’s relationship with Marce is progressing nicely, with just a touch of conflict because of the royal need to marry politically, which seems to worry Marce more than it does Cardenia. Marce has more ideas about the nature of the Flow, and in the background, there are two powerful AIs whom nobody is watching.
I will also be interested to see if the titles for the third and fourth books also comprise a rhyming couplet.
If you enjoy Scalzi you will probably love everything here. I know I did.
I’m so glad you’re enjoying this series as much as you are!
It’s really good fun.