Things are stressful right now! Very uncertain and stressful! One thing that’s neither uncertain nor stressful, however, (or at least not in a bad way) is John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. The first two books—The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire—have been out for awhile, and one thing to look forward to during this global pandemic is the release of the third and final book of the series, The Last Emperox.
Before we get into the review of The Last Emperox, however, let’s have a quick refresher on where we left things in The Consuming Fire (you can also read a more detailed, spoiler-full review of that book here).
At the end of The Consuming Fire, Cardenia—AKA Emperox Grayland II—thwarted an attempted coup that ended with members of several houses in jail. Unfortunately for Cardenia, however, her greatest nemesis Nadashe Nohamapetan remains free, although Nadashe’s mother, as well as Cardenia’s own cousin, didn’t manage to escape incarceration. Aside from ambitious coup attempts, we also uncover other secrets in The Consuming Fire. Take Jiyi, the Artificial Intelligence that runs Cardenia’s Memory Room, for example. That entity has been steadily uncovering every tiny little (and not so little) secret in the Interdependency, over the centuries, which will certainly give Cardenia a unique advantage in the last book of the trilogy. And speaking of AI, there’s also the introduction of the cheeky Chenevert, a long-dead king from another Flow system (yep, other Flow systems beyond The Interdependency exist!) who now resides in a ships mainframe and has become buddy-buddy with Marce Claremont, the Flow scientist who also has become Cardenia’s boyfriend.
Second-to-last but definitely not least, we have Kiva Lagos, everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed member of the nobility who finds herself not only the de facto head of House Nohamapetan assets, but also a member of Cardenia’s Executive Council. Even more shocking—she ends up with a steady girlfriend as well.
And actually last and certainly of import, there’s also the niggling problem that The Interdependency is dying because the Flow shoals—little-understood highways of space-time that connect each settlement—are collapsing. If nothing is done, billions will die, as the entire civilization of The Interdependency (except for its sole habitable planet, End) relies on inter-settlement trade to keep everyone alive.
Lots of other things happened as well, of course. But these are the broad brushstrokes to keep in mind before you take a deep breath and jump into The Last Emperox. In proper Scalzi fashion, The Last Emperox is a fun, wild ride, one that takes us through the intertwined journeys of the characters we’ve come to love (or at least love to hate). Like the two books before it, it’s the characters who are the best part of the story, the delicious meat that is marinated by the empire-ending disaster that, directly and indirectly, drives the plot forward. You can’t help but root for Cardenia, for example, as she once again finds herself on the wrong end of an assassination plot while also trying to save billions from inevitable death. You also can’t help but want to punch Nadashe in the face as she orchestrates said-assassination plot and strives to save the 1% by willingly leaving the billions of others in The Interdependency to die. And then there’s Kiva, who maintains her trademark foul-mouthed charm when she’s being shot at, imprisoned, and thrust into positions she never expected to find herself in.
And even though the characters are what make this book so great, the worldbuilding is nothing to sneeze at either. We were introduced to a larger “world” in the second book with the reveal that other Flow systems are out there. And while there isn’t such a reveal in The Last Emperox, the political calculations, machinations and ramifications that Cardenia must navigate become much more involved. She has help along the way though—Marce is by her side through it all (as much as he can be, at least, given he can’t understand or bear the burden of being emperox), and she finds an unexpected resource in Jiyi, the AI behind the emperox’s Memory Room.
How things eventually play out for my favorite emperox was, in a word, shocking—I had to re-read a couple of pages in fact, as my brain refused to process what happened. And while some of the twists and turns were certainly a surprise, how the story unfolded makes sense in retrospect, a painful yet inevitable way to give almost everyone in The Interdependency a chance to survive the eventual collapse of the Flow.
That’s not to say that The Last Emperox is a sad story—it’s fast-paced and fun, and will leave space opera fans thoroughly entertained. The book is more than just a fun romp though—it’s thoughtful and eerily timely as well, an exploration of how mercantile self-interest can drive some to view the death of millions as an acceptable loss. But for every “pragmatic” approach to life and death, there’s the counterbalance—the leaders who strive to do what’s best for everyone, especially the most vulnerable. It’s the message I needed right now; the hope that humanity can overcome its worst instincts and collectively work toward a greater good.
While this is officially the third and final book in The Interdependency series, there are enough open threads left at the end of The Last Emperox that could each comprise a novel in their own right. That’s not to say there’s no closure in the trilogy. But I want to read more stories about these characters and their ongoing trials and adventures in this universe. So John Scalzi, if you’re reading this, here’s at least one vote for more Interdependency stories. Please?
The Last Emperox is available from Tor Books.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.