Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire.

NY: Tor, 2017.

When it comes to writing SF novels, Scalzi doesn’t always hit it out of the park, but he does have a very good batting average. I’ve seen some highly critical comments recently about this opening volume of his new space opera series from apparently disappointed fans, so I approached it with some trepidation. Damned if I can see what they’re complaining about, though. It’s an action-packed adventure with bigger-than-life (and frequently off-the-wall) characters, a supporting cast of billions, creditable pseudo-science (and some of the real stuff, too), and a skein of plotlines that will definitely hold your attention.

The setting is the Holy Empire of the Interdependent States and Mercantile Guilds (“the Interdependency,” for short), which is exceedingly far-flung, has been around for a thousand years, and is absolutely dependent for its existence on the Flow — the entirely natural system of interdimensional shortcuts from one location in the universe to another without having to cross the intervening distance. These come in pairs, one in each direction, and they’re always close to stars, but other than that they appear to be completely random. Which means that when expanding humanity came out of the Flow into a new star system, they had to adapt to whatever planets they could find, which also means most of them live underground. All except End, the world in the Interdependency farthest from anywhere else, which is very Earthlike and you can live very comfortably on the surface. The Flow isn’t entirely trustworthy, though; mankind has already lost access to Old Earth when it lost access to the Flow’s route there at the very beginning of the imperial system. This whole quasi-physics construct is very nicely handled, by the way, and it plays a key role in the development of the story.

So, Attavio VI, the 87th Emperox, is on his death bed, waiting patiently to get it over with, and his daughter, Cardenia Wu-Patrick, is not looking forward to becoming the new Emperox. Her brother was supposed to succeed, which was why Cardenia was able to be raised by her mother in relatively ordinary circumstances well away from the palace complex. But then Rennered went and got himself killed in a racing-car accident, and Cardenia has suddenly had to change all her plans for the future. But even though she’s largely going to have to make it up as she goes along, she has great depth of character and personality.

Then there’s the Nohamapetan family, one of the great Guild Houses, which really wants to take over, whether by marrying one of its members to the sovereign or by other means, most of them illegal and/or immoral. Politics is politics. And there’s the Count of Claremont, out on End, who is an old friend of Attavio’s and also one of the best physicists and experts on the Flow around. He has strong evidence that the entire Flow is about to fade away, forever, which means all the interdependent worlds in the empire will be cut off from each other. And his son, Marce, also a physicist, is being sent to Hub to explain all this to the Emperox. But Lord Ghreni Nohamapetan, managing his family’s affairs on End, has his own plans, and they don’t bode well for Lord Marce.

Finally, there’s Lady Kiva Lagos, younger member of a rival Guild House, and possibly the most profane young woman ever to cut an interstellar business deal. She’s having fits at End because there’s another revolt in progress (End has those once or twice every decade) and the Duke of End is grabbing every penny he can including the cargo Kiva has just landed. But Kiva, the most uproarious character in the book, is very much not someone you want to get on the wrong side of. And she’s not going to just walk away without taking a profit. She’ll also smile while tossing people out the airlock when it’s necessary.

Scalzi obviously had a lot of fun with this one and it’s heavily cinematic in flavor. The plot is complex but well designed and this is only the first volume. And there’s a helluva cliffhanger. Okay, I know some people hate cliffhangers, but maybe they should learn to practice patience in the pursuit of delayed gratification. I will definitely be waiting impatiently for Vol. 2.

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