It's stupid how I always forget how much fun John Scalzi is until I read another of his books, and then I want to eat them all up. Maybe it's because they're a little light--not that they don't deal with interesting and complicated ideas, but that they are so upbeat and amusing that I retain that and forget the meat of them. I think that happens with Terry Pratchett, too, which says something. Their books are always better than I remember them being, even when I remember them being very good indeed.
I finally picked up The Collapsing Empire because Linden and Elizabeth both loved it soooooo much. Like the kind of recommendations that are hard to ignore. The first three or four chapters are all from different points of view, so I actually found it a little tough to get into at first; just when I got invested in someone, we'd move on to the next someone. Eventually it leveled out at three main characters, though, and two of them come together--if not physically then into the same storyline--fairly quickly, so that slowness falls back pretty quickly.
And all three characters are COMPLETELY likeable. (I feel like the fact that I'm talking about the likeability of the characters says a lot about this as a science fiction novel--which is to say that it works really well on a human level.) Cardenia, as a younger and bastard daughter, was never supposed to rule an empire, but when her older half brother died suddenly, she suddenly became the heir to everything. Her matter-of-fact attitude is just what you want to see in a Leadership Thrust Upon Her scenario and is immensely satisfying.
Marce is the son of a minor nobleman on a planet called The End because it's just so far away from literally everything. He's an academic with important information (about how the empire is collapsing) that he has to get to the emperox. He's just kind of a dude, but he's likeable for all that--very much the Everyman buried over his head in intrigue.
If it was just them, I'd say they're TOO likeable. Like, rational, level-headed, pretty flawless Normal People. Their biggest flaw is they're so straightforward that maybe they're not nuanced enough. But then you get your third hero--Kira. She's the daughter of a wealthy merchant house that's caught in the middle of another house's power grab. Kira is foul-mouthed, impatient, frank to the point of being insulting, and frequently gets distracted by sex. She's also immensely good at her job (which is basically making money in any way that can be painted as legal or well-laundered), which makes her the most fun character to follow. Like Marce and Cardenia, Kira is super-competent, but she's not an obvious white-hat good guy, and I think the strength of that really carries the book in a lot of ways. I was free to love the lawful good heroes because I had this chaotic neutral to cleanse my palate.
The story is about a space empire that is linked by the Flow, which is the only way for ships to travel the vast distances of space. When the Flow begins to change, the thousand year old empire is going to have to change with it. But of course (as we all know), changing an enormous society--including bureaucracy, religion, class system, and financial system--because nature is telling you that what you're doing ain't gonna fly no more is not as easy as it sounds (*cough*globalwarming*cough*), and the attendant intrigues begin.
My main criticism matches that of Thea from The Booksmugglers--namely, this story doesn't stand alone. I had no idea it was going to be part of a series until I was halfway through, but this is definitely one-third of a larger story, not a story in itself. I liked what I read, and I wasn't trying to rush it, but I don't think it's served by being split up--I think I would much rather have read one 1200 page book than this and then two more later. Not just the cliffhanger problem, but the fact that everything I've read so far is prelude. I think going into it as part of a serial story is going to work better than as a series--even though the next installment is over a year away.
Ugh, a year. Well, at least I'll have time to catch up on all the John Scalzi that I don't know why I haven't read. Ghost Brigades, here I come!