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The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

4 of 5 stars

It's nice when you follow an author who has steadily upped his game. Like many, I started reading John Scalzi with Old Man's War, and while I liked that book well enough, some of his authorial tics (mainly constant maddening "saids" with every single freaking line of dialogue) drove me nuts. Still, I enjoyed the books well enough to hang in there. Scalzi has a breezy, workmanlike style that manages to pull you in, and his characterization and worldbuilding has improved with each book. I would have said the last book of his I read, Lock In, was his best.

Until this one.

This is the first of a new series, the story of an interstellar empire with less than ten years left to live. The Interdependency relies on the Flow, interdimensional currents that bypass the lightspeed barrier and make space travel possible. Humanity has built its entire existence around these currents, and the rigid trade hierarchy between colonies (and the Interdependency's one actual planet, End). Now, however, the Flow is collapsing, and the extinction of the Interdependency and humanity itself seems imminent.

There are not much higher stakes than this. Usually in books like these, we have a cast of thousands, which is why I don't read many of them. This is not the case in this book: we have three main protagonists, an Interlude featuring the POV of the villain, and a prologue told from the point of view of a character I wish we could have seen more of. (Maybe next time.) Our main characters are Cardenia, who is unexpectedly, and unwillingly, thrust into the office of Emperox of the Interdependency; Kiva Lagos, the wonderfully foul-mouthed representative of one of the royal houses (I would love for her and Chrisjen Avasarala from the Expanse novels to engage in a curse-off); and Marce Claremont, a Flow physicist from End, who is tasked with delivering the bad news to the new Emperox.

This story is mainly told through dialogue, which is a Scalzi trademark. That's not to say he can't write action scenes. There are a few of them here, and one in particular, an assassination attempt on the Emperox, is well done. But snappy patter is John Scalzi's meat and potatoes. Description is not, which may bother some people. I didn't mind, and scarcely noticed it after a while, because these characters are well drawn and distinctive, even if I have no idea what any of them look like. The prose is smooth and unobtrusive, and the entire book flows well. The problem is not solved in this volume, which may also put people off. But since the problem itself is so huge, one can hardly expect it to be wrapped up in one book, and frankly it would be a cheat if it was.

(The only thing that gave me pause is the prologue: specifically, several paragraphs within the prologue itself, where the rising action grinds to a halt for a heavy-handed and authorially intrusive infodump explaining the Flow. I have no idea why Scalzi did this. As far as I'm concerned, it was completely unnecessary: a few brief sentences would have sufficed to tell the reader the ship had unexpectedly dropped out of its interdimensional current, and if it didn't get back in, everyone would be up shit creek. Especially since the Flow and the Interdependency itself is explained later, in a far better and more natural fashion, in Chapter Four, where we are introduced to Marce Claremont. If the entire book had been like the prologue, it would have rapidly met the wall. Fortunately, it wasn't.)

I think this is John Scalzi's best work to date (and thankfully his "said" problem is more or less solved). I am invested in these characters and this story, and care about what happens to them. That makes a successful book, and one I am glad I own.
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