The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi (SF Novel, October 2018).
Scalzi, the reigning master of intelligent space operas, opens a new series with this typically inventive and absorbingly written novel.
The Interdependency is a sprawling interstellar empire that was built around a religion created cynically by a super-rich family over a thousand years ago. The Wu clan still holds power, but others would like to usurp or at least co-opt their position. The Interdependency’s many distant worlds trade and communicate via The Flow, a series of interdimensional conducts that allow for FTL spaceships.
But at times in the past parts of The Flow have been known to dry up. That’s supposedly how the rest of humanity lost contact with the ancestral home of the species, known (as you might guess) as Earth.
Now, The Flow is inexplicably beginning to fail again, isolating entire star systems that depend on trade to survive. Emperox Grayland II, the present ruler and nominal head of the church, is already an embattled and accidental leader. The half-brother who had been expected to take charge was assassinated and she only barely escaped the same fate at her coronation. While she tries to hold things together, by both finding a way to survive The Flow’s looming collapse and prevent a ruinous Civil War, she dispatches a science team headed by the Flow scientist she’s in the middle of beginning a relationship with to investigate mysterious new changes in the Flow that may provide helpful insights.
Power-hungry forces and multiple plots and counter-plots with betrayal more the rule than the exception mean plenty of juicy palace intrigue. Grayland and her more-or-less boyfriend Marce are but the foremost of many interesting and well-drawn characters in this story. Frequent twists in the plot occur and Scalzi displays his talent for snappy, both funny and smart dialogue throughout.
On the whole, this is an excellent opening to yet another rollicking space-and-politics adventure cycle.
As an aside, I feel I should note that this is the second recent SF novel that I’ve read about cultures that found exotic ways around the light-speed limit on interstellar travel that begins to break down inexplicably. The two books (the other being W. Michael Gear’s Outpost) find complex casts of characters scrambling to survive and prosper in difficult circumstances. Each has its strong points and neither feels to me like an imitation of the other. Yet I’m left to ponder if this represents a mini-trend in SF authors’ thoughts.
Having cobbled together clever excuses to allow for FTL travel, is a rethinking setting in? Certainly what happens if this familiar genre trope suddenly derails offers up all kinds of dramatic possibilities. It will be quite interesting to see how these two writers and their characters deal with the changes (or fail to do so) in later books in both series.