Dread Empire's Fall
by Walter Jon Williams
Reviewed by Michael Woodard
Dread Empire's Fall is Walter Jon Williams' three book series that includes the novels The Praxis, The Sundering, and Conventions of War.
The Shaa had a goal: bring the other species of the galaxy, through force of brutal strength and subjugation, into the glory of The Praxis. At the cost of untold billions of lives, they managed it. Thousands of years later the last of the great Shaa is dying...his final wish? That nothing in the Praxis will change.
The Naxids, the insectoid race first to be brought into subjugation by the Shaa, have other ideas. The book follows the lives of humans Lord Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula through the course of a revolutionary war set far from earth, far in the future. Gareth and Sula are both human Peers (the highest level of Praxis society), but even as Peers they have to struggle against social stratification - they are both the wrong kind of Peers. From the five books by Williams Ive read so far it is obvious that social distinctions are a very important topic to him. I always get the feeling of Fritz Langs Metropolis whenever I think about his work and I cant help thinking that movie must have influenced him greatly.
The Praxis mantra, All That is Important is Known, tells you right off that this isnt a society that particularly appreciates innovation and change. Throughout the books resistance to new ideas and imagination is a major recurring theme. This may also explain why, although the novels are set perhaps 10,000 years in the future, the technology itself doesnt seem all that futuristic. They have antimatter and they use wormholes, but certain technologies (genetic manipulation, artificial intelligence, etc) have been outright banned.
While some people reading the books might complain that limiting technology in this way is a bad thing for a science fiction story, or even complain that Williams uses this to escape having to deal with these issues, Ive read enough of his work to know imagination is definitely one thing he does not lack. I think instead he made a stylistic choice and I think it worked well. It works particularly well for the space ships, because although they are futuristic, you feel that the ships have guts, not just components. Fixing problems actually involves getting greasy and knocking around parts and using tools, not simply punching buttons on a console. I enjoyed this aspect immensely as it gives the ships a tactile reality and individual character.
The characters themselves are, like all of Williams' characters Ive seen, flawed. This is said in an appreciative tone. Williams doesnt write 'better than the rest of us' characters that have all the answers and can do no wrong. He writes human characters. Martinez is cocky and ambitious and Sula is just outright screwed up - but they are both exceptionally strong, intelligent individuals. Sula I particularly enjoyed. Williams is perhaps one of the best writers out there at making strong, capable and intelligent female leads.
I only had a few minor gripes about the series itself. The revelation about Sulas past was, by the time it arrived, very obvious; all I could think was, Yeah, I know. Moving on. I would have also liked a bit more background on the various species in the Praxis. Williams could have at least tried to make them, psychologically, a bit more, well, alien. Physiologically, he did a good job, but in personality I found them all so human I occasionally got confused over what species a particular character might be.
Still, these drawbacks were more than made up for by some of the amusing and interesting things Williams included. The idea of a military spacecraft painted lawn green with soccer balls and a center-field stripe running down the middle made me smile and nicely punctuated the useless frivolity of the upper echelons of the elite ruling class.
There is a bit of something for anyone in this series - space battles, romance, social commentary, adventure, even a touch of a murder-mystery in the third book (What would Dr. An-ku do?), and of course, Williams' dry humor. I enjoyed this series very much.
Big thumb's up.
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