If you need a sci-fi novel to take on a long weekend vacation, The Consuming Fire will certainly satisfy that need — and fans of John Scalzi, too.
The Consuming Fire is the sequel to last year’s The Collapsing Empire, and on some level, it’s really easy to say that if you liked the latter, you’ll like the former. John Scalzi isn’t really trying anything new here in terms of writing, aside from perhaps a more casual narrator (more on that later). After all, they’re part of the same series.
But on that note, it’s good to see that Scalzi does take some risks in his storytelling. Since Empire is all about setting things up, Fire is about showing how things start to crumble, even as there’s hope in certain places. Presumably, there will be a third book in this series, and so the expectation here is to go dark in some way. There is, of course, plenty of darkness. Remember, the first book includes an attempted assassination, and there’s inevitably fallout around that as well as the whole Interdependency slowly losing its routes to the far-flung planets. But the book isn’t entirely a downer.
This is something that middle acts in trilogies can miss. Even in The Empire Strikes Back, we get the beginning of Han and Leia’s relationship and Luke starting to truly come into his powers as a Jedi, even if he leaves before his training can be completed. At the very end, after all that’s happened, Leia can still smile at Luke. Fire gets this aspect pretty well, even though it wades briefly into a touch of the stereotypical at one point when it comes to relationships. (Fortunately, it’s not a full-on love triangle; this reviewer would have a lot more to complain about if it were.)
Moreover, Scalzi explores more of the backstory of the Interdependency than in the previous novel. It turns out that not everything is exactly known. One of the solutions presented does seem somewhat unexpected — if not perhaps acting as a slight handwave — but in a lot of ways, this is one of the more practical sci-fi titles when it comes to politics and nation-building.
Of course, this comes with a bit of a downside. The narrator is casual, as in the first novel in the series, but it’s been taken to a new level in Fire, to the point where it almost feels as though I’m listening to someone in Buffy the Vampire Slayer talk. Whether or not this is a good thing is up for debate, particularly since it’s used during scenes that might not require that amount of levity. There are times where it does shine, but it still feels like it’s a touch overused.
However, overall, The Consuming Fire is just as fun of a ride as The Collapsing Empire was, and it’s even slightly shorter than the previous book. Kudos for Scalzi to getting all of this packed in.