The Last Emperox is the third and final entry in American author John Scalzi’s Interdependency series and, as evidenced by its debut onto the New York Times bestseller list, ends on a solid high note. Many of the wheels put into motion in the preceding two novels come to a head here, and while enough things are left open and unresolved to make you wish for more books in the series, it definitely resolves the right things the right way to absolutely stick the landing. Accolades well deserved, this book was great!
The collapse of The Flow, the interstellar pathway between the planets of the Interdependency, has accelerated. Entire star systems—and billions of people—are becoming cut off from the rest of human civilization. This collapse was foretold through scientific prediction… and yet, even as the evidence is obvious and insurmountable, many still try to rationalize, delay and profit from, these final days of one of the greatest empires humanity has ever known.
Emperox Grayland II has finally wrested control of her empire from those who oppose her and who deny the reality of this collapse. But “control” is a slippery thing, and even as Grayland strives to save as many of her people from impoverished isolation, the forces opposing her rule will make a final, desperate push to topple her from her throne and power, by any means necessary. Grayland and her thinning list of allies must use every tool at their disposal to save themselves, and all of humanity. And yet it may not be enough.
Will Grayland become the savior of her civilization… or the last emperox to wear the crown?
As a note, while I’ll avoid any explicit spoilers for major elements of this specific book, this is a review of a third book in a series, so just the nature of describing even starting events here will of necessity include spoilers of the first two books, and so if you’ve yet to start this series at all, consider stopping reading now.
I think the most interesting through-line of this trilogy which also has a very strong parallel to modern events, is the degree to which, in spite of extremely clear and present danger, in spite of mountains of data to support the danger, in spite of first-hand proof plain to all that the danger is very real, boy do a lot of people of means, power and authority just not give a shit at all. And I don’t even mean their assumptions that they personally will end up fine no matter what happens, or their willingness to just throw everybody that isn’t their friends and family under the bus, though all of that is also here. It’s the way that their arrogance and pride make them completely blind to the idea that any part of this danger could be real at all.
And granted, you’ve got an Emperox who was never intended for the throne, who has no connections among the elite, no formal training in ruler-ship etc etc who is not only suddenly warning everybody of a major disaster they can’t even comprehend existing, but doing so based on the say-so of scientists that, as far as everybody is concerned are just backwater idiots. And granted, elements of what she’s calling people to do, if the threat is not actually real or serious, would do real harm to their economic situation. But again, that has so blinded all of these otherwise very intelligent and reasonable people to the reality staring them in the face, that they will just condemn billions of people, possibly including themselves, out of a refusal to consider the gravity of the situation.
The other message I’ve taken from this is a really interesting meditation on expertise, leadership, and morality. Emperox Greyland II is basically “some person” who through a coincidence of laws of succession is put in charge of, functionally, the entire universe and human race. She’s had basically no training for this job, no real preparedness, her own expertise in life is as an academic not a businessperson, a politician, a religious figure or even a negotiator, and yet she generally handles all of those issues with aplomb and even a certain degree of deftness and grace.
Likewise, Kiva Lagos. Yes, she’s more of an expert in her particular field which includes business, but even she’s not the direct heir to the family, her job was fairly isolated, representing the family on trading ships and so is, by reasonable expectations also pretty under-qualified for the kinds of things she ends up doing through these books. And she not only kicks ass, she takes names while she’s at it.
The main distinction they have, for me, is that at heart they are good people (Even if it takes Kiva a while to realize she’s actually not just self-interested after all) and that by being good people, having compassion and empathy for everybody, not just themselves, they excel. They have a willingness to find and trust experts, they have the ability to put others before themselves, and these things combine to make them effective. Their competence comes out of goodness, and not the other way around, and that struck me throughout the trilogy as a really interesting and impacting idea.
Recent world events have done an extremely good job of highlighting the problem that comes from people who have expertise in an area thinking this somehow extends to expertise in other unrelated areas, and that tacit assumption that because they are successful at whatever it is they do, they know better than anybody whose qualifications they can call into question, even when those people are using information that comes from actual experts. So this idea that effectiveness comes from essentially humility (yes even Kiva) is actually pretty bold in this day and age.
So having said all of that, most of which has nothing at all to do with the actual physical content of the book so much as the existential questions the book asks, I definitely want to make clear that this was, indeed a great book. The pacing is still bang on, the dialogue is absolute aces, and there managed to be a couple twists and turns that I was not at all expecting, none of which felt arbitrary or out of nowhere. There’s some absolutely fascinating history in prequel land for this world that I’d love to explore, almost as much, if not more than I want to see what’s going to happen further forward.
A fantastic ending to a fantastic trilogy. Bravo.
Dan received an Advance Review Copy of this novel from Tor via Netgalley
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