Book Review: The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 2 of The Interdependency
Publisher: Tor Book (October 16, 2018)
Length: 336 pages
In my review of The Collapsing Empire, I wrote that while it marked a strong return for John Scalzi to the realm of space opera, ultimately it is the next book that will determine whether The Interdependency series will sink or swim. So now that I’ve read the sequel, what did I think? Well, I’ll be honest—I was hot and cold on it. There were moments where I felt the novel floundered, but others where things really soared to new heights. I’m going to say that, for the time being, we seem to be in a holding pattern.
The Consuming Fire picks up where the previous book left off, with the future of humanity cast in doubt as it is revealed that the extra-dimensional conduit known as the Flow—our species’ primary mode of travel between the stars, and the only system linking human colonies across the galaxy—is on the verge of collapse. Once it goes down, billions will be cut off and left to die, leading to the complete destruction of the Interdependency, the network of human hubs making up the interstellar empire.
The Emperox Grayland II, formerly Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is trying her best to prepare for the coming disaster, but unfortunately, distractions caused by bitter infighting with the other noble houses aren’t helping. House Nohamapetan, longtime rivals of the Wus, is up to its old tricks, conspiring with the Emperox’s enemies in the government to try and seize the throne. But Grayland, determined to convey the dire news of what’s happening to the Flow, has some tricks of her own. As head of the Church of the Interdependency, she reveals she has been having religious visions, styling herself after the first Emperox who was famously known to have been something of a prophet.
I feel so conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the world-building is compelling, and the majority of the characters are interesting to follow, but there were also times where I found myself almost dying of boredom, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a Scalzi novel. I love his work. I always have. But a knot of dread had been forming in my belly ever since I read in an interview that his Interdependency series would be paralleling the climate change debate, and I worry that my fears have come to pass. As a general rule, I could care less what an author’s political and social leanings are, as long as they can write and tell a good story, and above all keep the blatant preachiness about real-world issues out of their books. Speaking as someone who reads SFF for the escapism, it’s always disheartening to watch a novel all but become a thinly veiled opportunity for an author to stand on their soapbox. While I’m no stranger to message fiction, things tend to get dicey whenever ideas are elevated above story elements, such as plot and characters.
Some of which I suspect was happening here, because things certainly felt a little…off. Characters, which are normally Scalzi’s forte, unexpectedly came across as flat and uninspired. A couple of them have been transformed into instruments of polemic, where their dialogue feels forced and scripted, almost in a grandiose and melodramatic “now, how do I turn this into a mic drop moment?” kind of way. Kudos to Scalzi for also trying his hand at something more cerebral, but his mistake might have been to force his usual snark onto this series, which reveals he has only one mode of humor. Nothing wrong with that on the surface—heck, some of the books that have made me laugh the hardest have been Scalzi’s. But again, it didn’t seem to work as well here. It felt like every time the moment called for some comic relief, inevitably it would involve Kiva Lagos walking in dropping a few F-bombs, because haha, that’s one sure fire way to get a laugh, right? Apart from Cardenia/Grayland, who has become almost as unmemorable as Marce, Kiva’s character was perhaps the biggest letdown in this sequel.
Still, credit where credit’s due, when the story gets good, it gets amazing. It’s probably no surprise that my favorite sections were all related to the parts about government conspiracies, assassination attempts, jailbreaks, and old Countess Nohamapetan being up to her usual wicked self. There was also plenty of intrigue as our characters are faced with significant questions following a meeting with an isolated remnant of a previously cut-off population, and I think this thread can lead to some consequential developments.
All told, The Consuming Fire suffers from an obvious agenda and a little of second-book syndrome, but I love John Scalzi too much to be writing The Interdependency off just yet. Everything now rests on the shoulders of the next book, which I hope will step up the storytelling and the character development, because in the end, those elements will be the key to this series’ success.
More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of The Collapsing Empire (Book 1)