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Bound to Please / Scalzi’s Satirical Space Opera Trilogy Hits Plenty of High Notes


Thousands of years in the future, a young woman named Cardenia Wu-Patrick finds herself on the throne of an interstellar empire after the purportedly accidental death of her elder half-brother. Novelist John Scalzi’s entertaining Interdependency Trilogy tells the story of Cardenia’s reign as the Emperox Grayland II.

What is an emperox? “This new gender-neutral title had been chosen [a millennium earlier] because market testing showed that it appealed to nearly all market segments as a fresh, new, and friendly spin on ‘emperor,’” Scalzi writes.

It’s a big job, and a dangerous one: She survives her first assassination attempt on the day of her coronation. Scalzi writes humorously enough to keep such drama from getting too dark, but it’s still impactful. The story is like “Game of Thrones” in space, but with a little less murder and a lot more wisecracking.

The title of the trilogy’s first book, “The Collapsing Empire” (2017) signals that all is not well in the Interdependency, as the empire is called. It includes many star systems, with commerce and communication among them made possible by the Flow, a network of wormhole-like passages through space. Each star system has a noble house that holds a monopoly on at least one vital commodity, which keeps the nobles rich and the far-flung parts of the Interdependency interdependent.

But in a cosmic ecological disaster, the Flow has begun to collapse, cutting off transportation and threatening billions with isolation and eventual starvation.

In “The Consuming Fire” (2018) the emperox tries to deal with the looming disaster while also fending off a coup attempt. Scalzi gives some of the villains delightful comeuppances, but allows a few to escape for the sake of the final book.

“The Last Emperox” (2020) brings it all to a spectacular crescendo.

The fact of the impending Flow collapse is now well known to the public. “A large number of people … decided that it was enough time in the future that someone would probably figure out what to do, and then went back to their daily lives … The more ambitious planned protests and conferences and composed strongly worded missives … Then they, too, mostly went back to their lives, under the impression that they, at least, had done something.”

The pattern may sound familiar to readers on 21st-century Earth. But in this trilogy there really is a Planet B. The rich and powerful are scheming to get there, leaving the masses to their fates.

Cardenia wants to save everyone, which much of the elite sees as hopelessly naive. But she does have some supporters, including Marce Claremont, her science adviser.

Behind closed doors, Marce is also her lover. In public, “he made sure to treat her with the same level of courtesy as anyone else in her court. Maybe other imperial boyfriends in history used their position to be casual and louche, but that wasn’t Marce. He wasn’t sure he could be louche if he tried.”

Another of the emperox’s confidants, Lady Kiva Lagos, is as louche as the day is long. She uses the F-word about as often as Jordan Belfort or Tony Montana. For an idea of how often that is, here’s one of the few lines of dialog in which she doesn’t use it:

“It’s a perfectly good word.”

There were numerous times when I laughed out loud while reading all three books, mostly in the final volume. Near the end, I actually exclaimed “Oh, no!” — on two consecutive pages. There are twists and surprises and daring escapes and love-story subplots. It’s quite a package.

“The Last Emperox” is the newest book, but to get the most out of your journey to the Interdependency, start the trilogy at the beginning, with “The Collapsing Empire.”