by Walter Jon Williams
Harper Torch, 2003, ISBN 0-380-82020-X
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
Anyone wanting to find this book needs to know that on the cover, larger than Williams'name and much, much larger than the title, it says "Dread Empire's Fall." This is apparently the series title, which is unfortunate. I had difficulty finding this book even after Mark Olson's recommendation had me actively looking for it, because my eyes kept sliding right over it--"Dread Empire's Fall" just doesn't sound like anything I'd want to waste my time on.
This is a very good space opera, with an intelligently complex multi-species empire, and an interestingly diverse set of characters trying to preserve that empire from destruction. Our viewpoint characters are all human (at least so far), but not all the good guys, by any means.
The basic situation is that, many tens of thousands of years ago, the Shaa began building an empire, conquering everyone they encountered. They governed according to a philosophy they called the Praxis, and attempted to inculcate that philosophy into all their subject species. No one knows where the Shaa homeworld was; they use a day (twenty-nine hours) that doesn't match the day of any planet anyone knows about. The Shaa are immortal, but they regard immortality as a mistake, and have strictly forbidden it to everyone else. Most of the Shaa have in fact chosen to die; at the start of The Praxis, there's one Shaa left, and he's making plans to terminate his existence. The subject species, having taken on all of the active work of governing the empire for a long time now, are about to be left completely on their own. Most of them see this as somewhat alarming, but something that, after all, they've been preparing for for a long time.
The Naxids, the oldest of the subject species, see it as an opportunity to take the place of the Shaa as the rulers of the empire.
Our two primary viewpoint characters are Lord Gareth Martinez, a Fleet lieutenant from a provincial family at the start of the book, and the young woman known as Lady Caroline Sula, a cadet with very good piloting skills. Since the empire hasn't fought a war in thousands of years, and the last one involved blasting a recalcitrant planet from space, advance ment in the Fleet has been based mostly on family connections and patronage. Neither Martinez, a peer but from a provincial family with limited connections, nor Sula, a peer but from a family that doesn't exist any more because the Legion of diligence exec uted all the adults for corruption when she was a child, is particularly strong in the area of patronage. They are, however, creative and talented individuals, loyal to the empire, and willing to take advantage of their opportunities.
Martinez gets his first opportunity when his soccer-obsessed captain won't listen to his concerns about the strange behavior of the Naxids at Magaria, and his fear that the soccor tournament is going to be used as a cover to seize the non-Naxid ships. Sula gets her first oppor tunity as a pinnace pilot in the first big battle with the Naxids, when she sees a chance to exploit a blind spot and destroy five Naxid ships in a battle that's otherwise a complete disaster for the loyalists. Of course, these are opportunities that nearly kill them, and don't necessarily make them popular with the kind of officers who've done well in the Fleet until now, but them's the breaks.
There's both great action and good character development here. Neither Sula nor Martinez is an improbably perfect hero; they're quite convincing individuals, surrounded by other fairly convincing individuals. Even the Naxids, not so far presented as individuals much, taken as a group have motivations that make sense, and do believable stupid or intelligent things.