Scalzi enters another exciting but easily digestible book into his bibliography.
His character work is much improved from his previous books. Some entries, especially ones like ‘The End of All Things’ that followed multiple characters, had a problem where every character sounded the same. They all had the same sense of humor, they talked the same way, etc… it made it difficult to even differentiate aliens (who were never very alien) from humans, let alone human from human. Each character here, in the short time we have with them, feels much more like their own person. This is a good sign given we will see a LOT of Scalzi books come out in the next decade.
The world building is… curious. Within the first few paragraphs the narrative is interrupt for the author to explain to us how the science fiction elements (specifically in this case, faster than light travel) will work in this book. It was a bit jarring as I can’t recall another book that has simply broken the story to say (paraphrasing) “In this universe they travel from one system to another using a set of pathways called the Flow”. Perhaps Scalzi felt like he needed to do this to quickly get the details out of the way so he could get right back into the story, but I felt like this aside was unnecessary. The whole system is simple enough that the details could be inferred simply by reading the story. You know, what normally happens in a book.
Scalzi also isn’t above re-using a few of his tropes from the Old Man’s War series. Of course the system of government/guilds/castes/church is built on deception. Complicated plans and schemes go off without a hitch, nearly always working exactly as planned. A hyper competent and deadly female soldier ala OMW’s Sagan appears, although mostly only to easily get the more prominent characters out of a bad situation.
Despite that, the world he created here is interesting enough, and the characters compelling enough to blast through those roadblocks and end up with a very enjoyable science fiction romp. I found the whole guild/caste system with their trade and monopolies very interesting. The church seemed to not be well fleshed out, or even necessary other than to show that the Imperials had all of society wrapped up in their emperox (but there are two more books for more to be revealed). It’s almost a shame that we enter this world right when it’s starting to unravel and fall apart and not have any time to enjoy it while it operates as it should. I suppose that would be a departure from the breakneck pace that Scalzi is setting for these novels, but it’s nice to take a leisurely stretch before running the race.