The Consuming Fire

by John Scalzi

Cover image

Series: Interdependency #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2018
ISBN: 0-7653-8898-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 320

Buy at Powell's Books

The Consuming Fire is the second book of the Interdependency series and is part of a single story with The Collapsing Empire. This is not a good series to read out of order.

The Collapsing Empire was primarily setup: introductions to the players, the story of Cardenia Wu-Patrick becoming emperox and what she learns about the empire in the process, and of course revelations of the fragility of her empire that culminate in a cliff-hanger ending. The Consuming Fire is unambiguously the middle book of a trilogy, which includes kicking that cliff-hanger along to the next book. The events of the first book left Cardenia clear on both the threat and the necessary response, but the status quo has substantial momentum and the rest of her government doesn't want to believe things that might disrupt it. Everything slows down from the climax of the first book, political complications multiply, and some parts of the plot enter a waiting game.

This type of middle-book slowdown can be frustrating, but here I thought it worked. It also made this an interesting book to read in the current political moment, where US (and, for that matter, UK) politics seems to be going through that middle-book tension.

During the time period of The Consuming Fire, thoughtful people (and insiders) have figured out the broad outlines of what's going to happen, but it hasn't happened yet. This is the time when one can be fairly certain of the meaning behind previous events but there's still a bit of uncertainty left, so people who have substantial incentives to come up with alternative explanations still have maneuvering room. It's the tense and frustrating middle period where one is trying to head off a slow-motion train wreck, or at least minimize the damage, but still have to deal with the people claiming there is no wreck and no train.

This probably makes the book sound miserable: a bit too on the nose, and thus likely to bring up unwelcome echos of current political messes. It's not, though. Partly this is due to political wish fulfillment: Scalzi is telling a story of smart and engaged people finding ways to change the world, including some very satisfying victories over their cynical opponents, so the reader is spared the sense of futility real-world politics more often brings. Partly it's due to Scalzi's comfortable, fast-moving style. But much of its avoidance of middle-book tension is use of another middle-book technique: the side exploration mission that crops up between chapters of the main plot, and which opens up surprise revelations for the world-building. I won't spoil that; suffice it to say that Scalzi is doing some interesting things with history, how it is recorded, and how that recording process can change the emphasis.

I think this series is still more of a speedboat than a submarine. It's determinedly headed towards its plot destination, and while that path is well-supported by an underlying lake of world-building with some occasionally interesting scenery, Scalzi rarely stops the boat to dive below the surface and explore in detail. That said, I grumbled a bit in my review of the first book about interchangeable characters, but didn't feel that here. Either I was too grumpy when reading the previous book or the characters are carving out their own territory as the series continues. Marce is still a cipher to me, but Kiva was my favorite surviving character in the first book and didn't let me down in the second. (And Scalzi makes an excellent choice in showing a key scene from her perspective. It benefits tremendously from her acerbic commentary.)

Something else I've liked about both books of this series so far is that Scalzi portrays all sides with intelligence. Some of the villains are cynical, self-serving scum, but they still make coherent, reasonable plans and anticipate their opponents' strategies. Neither the heroes nor the villains fall for obvious ploys. Scalzi does hand-wave some of the details, and I'm sure one could nitpick the tactics, but the books never made me want to. So many stories like this involve inexperienced protagonists blundering into obvious danger and then saving themselves through desperate heroics. It's nice to read a story that gives its characters more credit for advance planning.

The Collapsing Empire ended on a cliff-hanger; The Consuming Fire ends on essentially the same cliff-hanger, except complicated by subsequent revelations. Readers who dislike waiting for a story's conclusion may want to hold off until the third book is published (currently scheduled for early 2020). I'm enjoying the series and will certainly keep reading.

Followed by an as-yet-unnamed third book.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-12-27

Last modified and spun 2018-12-28