The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

The Consuming Fire by John ScalziA well-established system of faster-than-light travel is a staple of space opera. But what if that means of binding worlds across interstellar distances is disappearing? That’s the premise of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. In his latest, The Consuming Fire, that process is accelerating.

The Interdependency is a group of worlds inhabited by humans who use something called The Flow to get from star system to star system. It’s not true FTL travel. Rather, it’s like a shortcut, an interdimensional river that can take a ship two months to go from one world to another but nearly a year to return. And Marce Claremont knows it’s going to all disappear soon. This is bad. Most of the worlds of the interdependency are composed of habitats in hostile environments with only End being Earth-like. Except the Flow to End disappeared at the end of the first Interdependency novel, The Collapsing Empire.

And yet the powers-that-be within the Interdependency refuse to believe because, well, that would cost money. (Sounds like a few present-day politicians I could name.) It’s in this environment that Emperox Grayland II (regnal name for Cardenia Wu Patrick, who unceremoniously inherited the job from her father after her half brother was killed.) takes the throne. It seems the Church has concerns that Grayland has decided to use “visions” to get her point across. The noble houses also have concerns, mainly that Grayland is threatening their power base, especially two houses: The crafty and ruthless Nohampetans, who have twice tried to kill Grayland and now are in disgrace, and Cardenia’s own cousins, the House of Wu.

Only, all is not as it seems in the Flow. Marce learns there’s more to the collapse than meets the eye, including a possible human cause to the original issue. It may even explain why the Interdependency no longer has contact with Earth. But Grayland has allies. Her staff is incredibly loyal, efficient, and willing to get dirty without getting Her Majesty dirty. Marce is also unfailingly loyal and maybe a target for the lonely Emperox’s affections. And then we have Kiva Largo, the foul-mouthed, hypersexed operator installed as overseer of (and professional antagonist to) the Nohampetans. Kiva professes no love for the Emperox, but seems to relish every moment of her job. Not only that, but she is the potty-mouthed voice of the reader in this.

It’s a Scalzi novel. The voice from the Old Man’s War universe is in full effect. Listening to this on Audible, it’s only amplified by Wil Wheaton, whose skills as a narrator have grown since he first read Red Shirts. Perhaps his biggest achievement in this one is depicting Grayland as one who skillfully lets her enemies scheme themselves into a bad situation. It’s equal parts satire, space opera, and cautionary tale, all told tongue in cheek.