A new Scalzi novel is always a treat for me: since I discovered this author with the first volume of his Old Man’s War series, each new book he published has been a source for intriguing stories, remarkable characters and some well-placed humor. Book 1 of The Interdependency series, The Collapsing Empire, was no exception: it depicted a sprawling galactic empire whose means of travel and communication depend on the Flow, a mix between a sea current and a wormhole that allows ships to travel huge distances in a relatively shorter time than they would if they moved through normal space.
The Flow, however, is not immutable, and a few scientists have discovered that the routes of communication toward the various colonized systems are on the verge of collapse: once that happens, each system will find itself isolated from the rest of the Interdependency, risking chaos and the fall of civilization. In Book 1 we saw how newly elected Emperox Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who took the name of Grayland II, was trying to deal with this disturbing news while finding her way as the supreme ruler of the Interdependency (a role that was thrust on her unexpectedly) and fending off the assassination attempts carried out by some of the ruling families, bent on seizing the ultimate power before civilization’s end.
With The Consuming Fire the stakes get higher and even more dangerous: House Nohamapetan still stands at the heart of every evil scheme, despite the crippling blow sustained after the latest failed attempt on the Emperox’s life, and here we get to know better the House’s true ruler, the callous Countess who does not balk even at using her own offspring as pawns in the complicated game she’s playing. Kiva Lagos, the young CEO of House Lagos who has been tasked with uncovering the Nohamapetans’ closeted skeletons, is often in danger of losing her life as her adversaries attempt to remove the nuisance she represents, with no regard for any collateral damage. And Cardenia/Greyland knows she must find new ways to rule that can be applied to the extremely volatile and uncertain situation none of her predecessors ever faced.
Meanwhile, Marce Claremont, the scientist whose work has brought to light the precariousness of the Flow, learns that his data is incomplete and that there might be a possibility to establish new pathways once the old ones collapse, just as he discovers that the shutdown of a Flow does not necessarily mean the end of civilization: a journey toward the recently re-opened path toward doomed Dalasysla – an older colony that was cut off from the Interdependency when a few centuries before its arm of the Flow collapsed – shows that there is still life in that system – harsh, precarious life, granted, but still a healthy form of society that gives hope for the future.
With all of the above (and much more) going on, The Consuming Fire is indeed a swift and entertaining read, which is what I have come to expect from a Scalzi novel, but I’m sorry to say that it also proved to be something of a disappointment: in part I can place the blame for that on my expectations, which were quite high after the first book set down the playing field and then ended on a cliffhanger, leaving me wanting to know right there and then what would happen next. In part, however, my dissatisfaction with this book comes from an uneven pace that alternates moments of adrenalin-infused narrative, especially where the plots-within-plots of the Nohamapetans are concerned, and others of extreme slowness where one or more characters indulge in long, drawn-out conversations that offer some necessary context but at the same time sound pedantic and artificial. Now, this kind of wordy exchange is at times typical of Scalzi’s writing, but until now it never went on at such length and especially not as the dull counterpoint to more energetic segments: here it gives the story a start-and-stop quality that in the end I found frustrating and what’s worse it gave me the impression that the author has in part given up on his previous habit of just hinting at deeper issues, so that his readers can think about them on their own, in favor of a more open and sadly heavier lecturing.
And so, probably in an attempt to even out the scales, there is an excessive emphasis on a certain individual’s foul-mouthed tendencies, so that if at first I found Kiva Lagos’ characterization an amusingly irreverent portrayal, here she has become a caricature of herself, and a badly overstated one at that. In the first book, Kiva used to drop the f-word at every opportunity, with no thought for circumstance or company, and she offered a refreshing contrast to the stuffy courtliness or the razor-thin false politeness of other characters. Sadly, in The Consuming Fire, Kiva’s cussing is all out of proportion to many of the situations she finds herself in, and what’s worse her profanities are not simply uttered in direct dialogue as would be expected, but also employed when the author relays her thoughts, which I found unnecessary and redundant, more in the spirit of a child who has just learned a four-letter word and enjoys the shocking impact of it, rather than the representation of an adult who does not care overmuch about social graces.
These issues, minor as they are, coupled with the shortness of the novel and my perceived lack of any substantial advancement in characterization or story, managed to spoil some of my enjoyment, and that’s the reason I find myself unable to give The Consuming Fire a higher rating. Still, I have not given up either on this series or this author, and can look forward to the final chapter in this adventure with the hope of seeing all my expectations realized.