Review: The Last Emperox, by John Scalzi

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun May 24 20:16:08 PDT 2020

The Last Emperox
by John Scalzi

Series:    Interdependency #3
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: April 2020
ISBN:      0-7653-8917-7
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     318

This is the conclusion of the Interdependency trilogy, which is a
single story told in three books. Start with The Collapsing Empire. You
don't want to read this series out of order.

All the pieces and players are in place, the causes and timeline of the
collapse of the empire she is accidentally ruling are now clear, and
Cardenia Wu-Patrick knows who her friends and enemies are. What she
doesn't know is what she can do about it. Her enemies, unfettered
Cardenia's ethics or desire to save the general population, have the
advantage of clearer and more achievable goals. If they survive and,
almost as important, remain in power, who cares what happens to
everyone else?

As with The Consuming Fire, the politics may feel a bit too on-the-nose
for current events, this time for the way that some powerful people are
handling (or not handling) the current pandemic. Also as with The
Consuming Fire, Scalzi's fast-moving story, likable characters, banter,
and occasional humorous descriptions prevent those similarities from
feeling heavy or didactic. This is political wish fulfillment to be
sure, but it doesn't try to justify itself or linger too much on its
improbabilities. It's a good story about entertaining people trying
(mostly) to save the world with a combination of science and political

I picked up The Last Emperox as a palate cleanser after reading Gideon
the Ninth, and it provided exactly what I was looking for. That gave me
an opportunity to think about what Scalzi does in his writing, why his
latest novel was one of my first thoughts for a palate cleanser, and
why I react to his writing the way that I do.

Scalzi isn't a writer about whom I have strong opinions. In my review
of The Collapsing Empire, I compared his writing to the famous
description of Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction, but
that's not quite right. He has a distinct and easily-recognizable
style, heavy on banter and light-hearted description. But for me his
novels are pleasant, reliable entertainment that I forget shortly after
reading them. They don't linger or stand out, even though I enjoy them
while I'm reading them.

That's my reaction. Others clearly do not have that reaction, fully
engage with his books, and remember them vividly. That indicates to me
that there's something his writing is doing that leaves substantial
room for difference of personal taste and personal reaction to the
story, and the sharp contrast between The Last Emperox and Gideon the
Ninth helped me put my finger on part of it. I don't feel like Scalzi's
books try to tell me how to feel about the story.

There's a moment in The Last Emperox where Cardenia breaks down crying
over an incredibly difficult decision that she's made, one that the
readers don't find out about until later. In another book, there would
be considerably more emotional build-up to that moment, or at least
some deep analysis of it later once the decision is revealed. In this
book, it's only a handful of paragraphs and then a few pages of
processing later, primarily in dialogue, and less focused on the
emotions of the characters than on the forward-looking decisions
they've made to deal with those emotions. The emotion itself is
subtext. Many other authors would try to pull the reader into those
moments and make them feel what the characters are feeling. Scalzi just
relates them, and leaves the reader free to feel what they choose to

I don't think this is a flaw (or a merit) in Scalzi's writing; it's
just a difference, and exactly the difference that made me reach for
this book as an emotional break after a book that got its emotions all
over the place. Calling Scalzi's writing emotionally relaxing isn't
quite right, but it gives me space to choose to be emotionally relaxed
if I want to be. I can pick the level of my engagement. If I want to
care about these characters and agonize over their decisions, there's
enough information here to mull over and use to recreate their
emotional states. If I just want to read a story about some interesting
people and not care too much about their hopes and dreams, I can choose
to do that instead, and the book won't fight me. That approach lets me
sidle up on the things that I care about and think about them at my
leisure, or leave them be.

This approach makes Scalzi's books less intense than other novels for
me. This is where personal preference comes in. I read books in large
part to engage emotionally with the characters, and I therefore
appreciate books that do a lot of that work for me. Scalzi makes me do
the work myself, and the result is not as effective for me, or as

I think this may be part of what I and others are picking up on when we
say that Scalzi's writing is reminiscent of classic SF from decades
earlier. It used to be common for SF to not show any emotional
vulnerability in the main characters, and to instead focus on the
action plot and the heroics and martial virtues. This is not what
Scalzi is doing, to be clear; he has a much better grasp of character
and dialogue than most classic SF, adds considerable light-hearted
humor, and leaves clear clues and hooks for a wide range of human
emotions in the story. But one can read Scalzi in that tone if one
wants to, since the emotional hooks do not grab hard at the reader and
dig in. By comparison, you cannot read Gideon the Ninth without
grappling with the emotions of the characters. The book will not let

I think this is part of why Scalzi is so consistent for me. If you do
not care deeply about Gideon Nav, you will not get along with Gideon
the Ninth, and not everyone will. But several main characters in The
Last Emperox (Mance and to some extent Cardenia) did little or nothing
for me emotionally, and it didn't matter. I liked Kiva and enjoyed
watching her strategically smash her way through social conventions,
but it was easy to watch her from a distance and not get too engrossed
in her life or her thoughts. The plot trundled along satisfyingly,
regardless. That lack of emotional involvement precludes, for me, a
book becoming the sort of work that I will rave about and try to press
into other people's hands, but it also makes it comfortable and gentle
and relaxing in a way that a more emotionally fraught book could not

This is a long-winded way to say that this was a satisfying conclusion
to a space opera trilogy that I enjoyed reading, will recommend mildly
to others, and am already forgetting the details of. If you liked the
first two books, this is an appropriate and fun conclusion with a few
new twists and a satisfying amount of swearing (mostly, although not
entirely, from Kiva). There are a few neat (albeit not horribly
original) bits of world-building, a nice nod to and subversion of
Asimov, a fair bit of political competency wish fulfillment (which I
didn't find particularly believable but also didn't mind being
unbelievable), and one enjoyable "oh no she didn't" moment. If you like
the thing that Scalzi is doing, you will enjoy this book.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-05-24


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

More information about the book-reviews mailing list