Review: The Last Emperox
, by John Scalzi
This is the conclusion of the Interdependency trilogy, which is a single
story told in three books. Start with The
. You don't want to read this series out of order.
All the pieces and players are in place, the causes and timeline of the
collapse of the empire she is accidentally ruling are now clear, and
Cardenia Wu-Patrick knows who her friends and enemies are. What she
doesn't know is what she can do about it. Her enemies, unfettered
Cardenia's ethics or desire to save the general population, have the
advantage of clearer and more achievable goals. If they survive and,
almost as important, remain in power, who cares what happens to everyone
As with The Consuming Fire
, the politics
may feel a bit too on-the-nose for current events, this time for the way
that some powerful people are handling (or not handling) the current
pandemic. Also as with The Consuming Fire
, Scalzi's fast-moving
story, likable characters, banter, and occasional humorous descriptions
prevent those similarities from feeling heavy or didactic. This is
political wish fulfillment to be sure, but it doesn't try to justify
itself or linger too much on its improbabilities. It's a good story about
entertaining people trying (mostly) to save the world with a combination
of science and political maneuvering.
I picked up The Last Emperox
as a palate cleanser after reading
Gideon the Ninth
, and it provided
exactly what I was looking for. That gave me an opportunity to think
about what Scalzi does in his writing, why his latest novel was one of my
first thoughts for a palate cleanser, and why I react to his writing the
way that I do.
Scalzi isn't a writer about whom I have strong opinions. In my review of
The Collapsing Empire
, I compared his writing to the famous
description of Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction, but
that's not quite right. He has a distinct and easily-recognizable style,
heavy on banter and light-hearted description. But for me his novels are
pleasant, reliable entertainment that I forget shortly after reading them.
They don't linger or stand out, even though I enjoy them while I'm reading
That's my reaction. Others clearly do not have that reaction, fully
engage with his books, and remember them vividly. That indicates to me
that there's something his writing is doing that leaves substantial room
for difference of personal taste and personal reaction to the story, and
the sharp contrast between The Last Emperox
and Gideon the
helped me put my finger on part of it. I don't feel like Scalzi's
books try to tell me how to feel about the story.
There's a moment in The Last Emperox
where Cardenia breaks down
crying over an incredibly difficult decision that she's made, one that the
readers don't find out about until later. In another book, there would be
considerably more emotional build-up to that moment, or at least some deep
analysis of it later once the decision is revealed. In this book, it's
only a handful of paragraphs and then a few pages of processing later,
primarily in dialogue, and less focused on the emotions of the characters
than on the forward-looking decisions they've made to deal with those
emotions. The emotion itself is subtext. Many other authors would try to
pull the reader into those moments and make them feel what the characters
are feeling. Scalzi just relates them, and leaves the reader free to feel
what they choose to feel.
I don't think this is a flaw (or a merit) in Scalzi's writing; it's just a
difference, and exactly the difference that made me reach for this book as
an emotional break after a book that got its emotions all over the place.
Calling Scalzi's writing emotionally relaxing isn't quite right, but it
gives me space to choose to be emotionally relaxed if I want to be. I can
pick the level of my engagement. If I want to care about these characters
and agonize over their decisions, there's enough information here to mull
over and use to recreate their emotional states. If I just want to read a
story about some interesting people and not care too much about their
hopes and dreams, I can choose to do that instead, and the book won't
fight me. That approach lets me sidle up on the things that I care about
and think about them at my leisure, or leave them be.
This approach makes Scalzi's books less intense than other novels for me.
This is where personal preference comes in. I read books in large part to
engage emotionally with the characters, and I therefore appreciate books
that do a lot of that work for me. Scalzi makes me do the work myself,
and the result is not as effective for me, or as memorable.
I think this may be part of what I and others are picking up on when we
say that Scalzi's writing is reminiscent of classic SF from decades
earlier. It used to be common for SF to not show any emotional
vulnerability in the main characters, and to instead focus on the action
plot and the heroics and martial virtues. This is not what Scalzi is
doing, to be clear; he has a much better grasp of character and dialogue
than most classic SF, adds considerable light-hearted humor, and leaves
clear clues and hooks for a wide range of human emotions in the story.
But one can
read Scalzi in that tone if one wants to, since the
emotional hooks do not grab hard at the reader and dig in. By comparison,
you cannot read Gideon the Ninth
without grappling with the
emotions of the characters. The book will not let you.
I think this is part of why Scalzi is so consistent for me. If you do not
care deeply about Gideon Nav, you will not get along with Gideon the
, and not everyone will. But several main characters in The
(Mance and to some extent Cardenia) did little or nothing
for me emotionally, and it didn't matter. I liked Kiva and enjoyed
watching her strategically smash her way through social conventions, but
it was easy to watch her from a distance and not get too engrossed in her
life or her thoughts. The plot trundled along satisfyingly, regardless.
That lack of emotional involvement precludes, for me, a book becoming the
sort of work that I will rave about and try to press into other people's
hands, but it also makes it comfortable and gentle and relaxing in a way
that a more emotionally fraught book could not be.
This is a long-winded way to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to
a space opera trilogy that I enjoyed reading, will recommend mildly to
others, and am already forgetting the details of. If you liked the first
two books, this is an appropriate and fun conclusion with a few new twists
and a satisfying amount of swearing (mostly, although not entirely, from
Kiva). There are a few neat (albeit not horribly original) bits of
world-building, a nice nod to and subversion of Asimov, a fair bit of
political competency wish fulfillment (which I didn't find particularly
believable but also didn't mind being unbelievable), and one enjoyable "oh
no she didn't" moment. If you like the thing that Scalzi is doing, you
will enjoy this book.
Rating: 8 out of 10