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Set in an interstellar empire connected by a network of conduits that allow faster-than-light travel, the Interdependency Trilogy centres around Emperox Grayland II. Shortly after her coronation, the Emperox learns that the network is about to collapse, leaving each imperial node cut off and isolated from each other.
The first two books dealt with the initial response to this discovery and the subsequent political machinations and attempted coups as various factions tried to turn the crisis to their advantage.
But as the third book opens, the underlying problem of an impending collapse of all interstellar trade remains unresolved. Grayland has five years before the worlds of her empire are split apart, and each system is left to fend for itself. It was made abundantly clear in the first two novels that there was no way to avoid this tragedy, and that each system would be unable to survive without their existing and symbiotic relationships with other worlds.
Resolving this point of tension in a satisfying and internally consistent way presents a major storytelling challenge. With 20 billion lives in the empire, the logistics of getting them all to the safety of a habitable planet (as opposed to orbital space stations) within five years would strain any story. Conversely, the prospect of ending a relatively light-hearted set of space adventure novels with the demise of 20 billion people would present major tonal challenges.
Unfortunately, Scalzi does not manage to resolve this conundrum. Instead of untangling the gordian knot created in the first two books, The Last Emperox offers readers another round of scheming nobility and coup attempts, with several of the most intriguing characters sidelined on personal quests and errands.
One of John Scalzi’s biggest strengths as a writer is his breezy, approachable prose that conveys meaning, personality, and emotion. For the first third of The Last Emperox, this remains true. But significant portions of the novel, particularly in the middle third, are told in the form of a rushed exposition of events.
The pace slows down suddenly during one character’s side-quest, but only to talk about the nature of the interstellar network. For the better part of a chapter, the author explains through metaphor and technobabble exactly why what was established as canonical fact about interstellar travel is no longer true.
Worse yet is the section in which we follow the plot as if it were a historical essay. Pages upon pages, paragraphs upon paragraphs without dialogue, character development, or human warmth. It feels like reading the text off a TV news anchor’s teleprompter. The writing comes across as rushed and lifeless.
During one of these expository sections, a major character is killed off so abruptly that some of us wondered whether it was a fake-out, and that it would be revealed later to be a ruse.
Most of all, the end of the novel is mostly a cop out. There’s plans to save the whole population of the Empire through a new property of the interstellar hyperspace network, though implementing this plan, and the possible demise of entire planets worth of people are left hanging. This cop-out ending seriously undermines the central climate change metaphor of the trilogy.
The first two novels of the Interdependency Trilogy are possibly the most enjoyable novels John Scalzi has ever written, in large part because of a diverse and interesting cast of characters. The first book introduced an interesting setting and a significant challenge. The second book explored some of the history and backdrop of this setting, while revealing new facets to the society. But the third adds very little.