Book cover: The Collapsing Empire - John Scalzi a spaceship against a lurid green backdrop)When humanity left Earth, they did so via the Flow – a little-understood force that handily connects disparate places in the universe. The Flow makes faster-than-light travel unnecessary. The Flow, consequently, holds the far-flung Empire together. And as one emperox dies and an unsuited heir is crowned, the Flow is collapsing…

We meet Cardenia – soon to be Emperox Grayland II – at her father’s deathbed. She was never intended to happen, let alone be heir, but the son who was groomed to inherit has died in a gruesome accident. Cardenia is the daughter of an academic, brought up in a relatively normal environment far from court. She always expected to inherit wealth and position; she had thought to put it to charitable use.

Instead, she’s inheriting the Interdependency – the star-spanning human empire that relies on the Flow for the necessary exchange of goods and services that enable its habitats and bases to survive. There’s only one habitable planet (Earth having been lost centuries ago when the Flow shoals that served it dried up), and everyone else looks down on End (and Enders – not that Scalzi ever calls them Enders, which seems like a shocking oversight; maybe he just liked that it was implicit and was assuming we’d all giggle quietly when we spotted it).

And she’s inheriting an Empire in crisis – and one that will almost certainly deny the crisis as soon as it learns of it. The Flow is collapsing. The habitats and bases will all be cut off. A little-known academic on End has all the details; an ambitious noble family has the wrong end of the stick and are manoeuvring aggressively to take advantage of a misunderstanding of the circumstances.

This has all the ingredients of a gripping, urgent drama of the sort I adore, with Machiavellian politics, mysterious forces, and an enjoyable group of protagonists (Cardenia is pragmatic and ethical; Marce is clever and earnest; Kiva is fabulously sweary and and utterly ruthless – yes, I know, not hard to spot my favourite here). And – Scalzi being Scalzi – there’s plenty to like in the incidental world-building, from Kiva’s in-your-face sex drive to the casual acceptance that Cardenia could achieve the necessary dynastic alliance with House Nohamapetan by marrying Lady Nadashe as easily as by marrying her brother Amit.

Unfortunately, it never became more than the sum of its parts for me. The Collapsing Empire is a little too obvious – it telegraphs itself – and, perhaps worse, it never goes very far. The whole book is the first act in what may turn out to be a gripping drama – but as the first in a series, it feels incomplete. It sets out the context but lacks an effective climax, and consequently it never delivers enough drama to get me fully invested. It would be enough to get me to watch episode 2 on tv, but it doesn’t do enough to suck me into a second book.

It’s at a massive disadvantage, of course. I’ve read Culture novels this year, along with most of The Expanse. The bar for space opera is set very, very high. But let’s not loose sight of the fact that even average Scalzi is still Scalzi. The Collapsing Empire is easily digestible, with vibrant characters and entertaining dialogue. It’s any easy, fun read – but, I fear, ultimately forgettable. I may read the sequels if I need a diversion. But I’m left with no real curiosity as to the outcome.

 

…I feel I need to add a final disclaimer here. When I first saw the rebooted Star Trek, I was left completely cold, seeing it as a movie made by accountants. Then I rewatched it on a different day, and discovered a shiny piece of cinema I can happily watch and rewatch until the cows come home. I have a feeling The Collapsing Empire may be similar – I can see aspects I might have loved on a different day (…the characters. All the characters. Including the Nohamapetans, but especially unapologetic Kiva Lagos). I’m just less certain it will get a second chance, because rereading a book takes commitment, unlike walking in on your beloved rewatching a film they enjoyed more than you did.

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I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.