Readers who enjoyed John Scalzi's previous entry in his latest series, The Interdependency, should find The Consuming Fire a fun romp. That said, being a second book in a trilogy, it does have a fair bit of middle-child syndrome, even if it is, overall, an engaging and fast-paced listen.
The Collapsing Empire, 2017's most appropriately named book release, set the stage for this series with its central premise of interstellar travel by way of the Flow (think rivers in space) and what will happen to these intergalactic civilizations when those streams begin to collapse. As The Consuming Fire picks up, more Flow streams are collapsing, setting off a political shitstorm between Emperox Grayland II and the ruling houses either hellbent on denying the science behind the Flow's collapse or usurping the throne in order to further their own power.
There's a dark vein running through the core of The Consuming Fire, what with its promise of civil war, attempted assassinations, and ENTIRE FUCKING PLANETS FULL OF PEOPLE being cut off from civilization and the resources required to keep them alive as the Flow disappears to condemn everybody to certain death. And yet, somehow, Scalzi avoids miring this series in prolonged, protracted portrayals of misery. The political shenanigans involving various houses competing for control of the empire recall a certain Game of Thrones In Space! element, but The Consuming Fire never devolves into violently brutal bloodbaths and Scalzi is hardly the sadist George R.R. Martin is, even though his plot promises the untimely deaths of waaaaaaay more people than Martin ever conjured to kill. No, somehow Scalzi manages to keep it all fairly light and, somehow, comical, even when bodies are hitting the floor.
Operating as an allegory to climate change and how the rich and powerful attempt to profit from science denialism in order to become even more rich and powerful, right up until the moment of complete and utter collapse, really shouldn't be this entertaining. Yet I found myself laughing frequently, thanks to Scalzi's wordsmithing, particularly at one point late in the book when a formerly human-now artificial intelligence jokes about dying in the flow.
“We have to talk about your sense of humor,” the formerly human-now AI is told.
“It was like this before. How do you think I died?”
Yeah, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at that one. A lot of this is due to Wil Wheaton's narration. The Collapsing Empire was my first introduction to both Scalzi as an author and Wheaton as a narrator, and I immediately fell in love with the both of them. It was apparent right from the start that Wheaton is a perfect match for Scalzi's work and sensibilities, and Wil just flat-out gets it. The Consuming Fire isn't just funny, it's goddamned snarky, and Wheaton does a fine job delivering snarkiness. Having been an actor since his childhood, he brings along that element of role-play to his audiobook narrations, injecting the reading with emotion and verve that really keeps things hopping along nicely.
The Consuming Fire is a worthy follow-up to the prior book, and while it doesn't advance the story of The Interdependency in huge leaps and bounds Scalzi does inject a few interesting wrinkles and side adventures for his cast of spacebound lords and ladies. Being the middle-child, its primary mission is to move certain pieces into place for the grand finale next book, and Scalzi does this really well, presuming that the next book, ominously (or at least tentatively, per Scalzi's February 2018 blog update) titled The Last Emperox, is indeed the last. Throughout this necessary bit of set-up, though, Scalzi at least injects enough new stuff, and even a few new mysteries, to make it a highly worthwhile listen. Plus, it's just damn good fun, and that's always welcome and necessary considering the time and reality we currently live in.
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