The Collapsing Empire trilogy holds a special place in my heart, as does John Scalzi himself. The eponymous first book was the catalyst for my decision to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a writer. Not because of any one specific thing in it — though it’s certainly an awesome space opera — and perhaps I was already looking for something to give me the final push. But the fact remains that it was Scalzi and his story of a galactic society, built on corporate monopolies and controlled comfort, that made me want to do this myself (I am referring, of course, to contorlling society through corporate monopolies).
The trilogy is finally done. And the whole thing worked!
(Obviously, SPOILERS to follow — this is the third part in a series after all.)
The Last Emperox begins where The Consuming Fire left us: Cardenia Wu-Patrick, a.k.a. Emperox Grayland II, has just thwarted another attempted coup by her now full-on nemesis Nadashe Nohamapetan. And in the process, she has arrested both Nadashe’s mother, and nearly a third of the nobility of the Interdependency, for treason. But that hasn’t stopped the plots, and she knows that her time is running out — both the time she has before her relentless enemy succeeds in her attempts to off her, and the precious years left before the Flow collapses entirely, dooming the billions of citizens of her empire to die a slow and miserable death cut off from vital resources.
Using this wonderful setup, Scalzi does what he did in the previous two books — uses smug post-modern omniscience to entertain, and does it brilliantly. The Last Emperox reads like something Terry Pratchett might have written, had he been an American, and probably a very different type of human. The narrative moves between a tight third person, and detached authorial observations, both of which never fail to win you through sheer coolness-factor. Scalzi knows how to do humor, but he also knows how to do tension and drama. This book is light on the former, unlike the previous two, but pretty stable on the latter, as the story draws to its inevitable conclusions.
What I found pretty interesting about The Last Emperox — and really, about the entire trilogy — is that it tells two parallel stories, and it breaks some pretty well-established conventions in telling one of them. On one hand are the characters, each of them with their own POV chapters: Cardenia/Grayland, Marce Claremont, Kiva Lagos, Nadashe Nohamapetan. They all play their parts in the great drama of the collapse, and yet their stories feel largely pre-determined. Like the pieces of a puzzle that could have only ever turn out one way. These stories combine with no really big surprises, and are often resolved through Deus Ex Machina.
In a lesser story, this would have bothered me. Not here.
Because The Collapsing Empire trilogy is not the story of Cardenia and co. It is the story of — wait for it — the collapsing empire. The story of the Interdependency as a society. That is the story we have really tuned in for, eve if the personal experiences of the characters living through this catastrophe are what makes it personal enough for us to care. And that story is anything but easily resolved. Where Scalzi is not afraid to descend from the skies and fix his heroes’ lives (or end them, as the case might be), he takes no easy paths to the resolution of the grander tragedy unfolding around them.
In this sense, the trilogy ends with a bang, the conclusion meant to both give us a sense of many stories still to come, and a firm ending. This universe is wider than the Interdependency, and there are plenty of adventures to be had in it. Personally, I am more than satisfied with the The Collapsing Empire as a complete work, but I would love to return to its worlds (well, ok — habitats) in a different time or place. Meanwhile, it’s a flawless work of science fiction, and a massive recommendation from me.