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The Praxis: Book One of Dread Empire's Fall

Water Jon Williams

Earthlight/Simon & Schuster

UK Trade Paperback First

ISBN 0-7434-6110-X

Publication Date: 10-01-2002

418 Pages; £10.99

Date Reviewed: 01-05-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



Science Fiction

01-02-04, 06-14-04

When a writer is working in a sub-genre with lots of conventions, the content need not be nearly so important as the execution. In fact, an excess of invention can hinder success rather than aid it. Space Opera is a sub-genre that can go either way. Since it is science fiction, it lends itself to invention, and many a writer has left the conventions light years behind with great success, while still working demonstrably within the sub-genre. On the other hand, part of the joy of both reading and writing genre and sub-genre fiction is that the conventions allow the reader and writer to use the backlog of what's been done before as a sort of scaffolding, and from the top of that scaffolding the view can be positively rapturous. This is not to say that Walter Jon Williams new space opera series is devoid of invention, but rather that invention isn't (yet) the point. In 'The Praxis: Book One of Dread Empire's Fall', Williams focuses on the basics of all good fiction; the characters and the story arc. He absolutely excels at delivering both, and the result is a rip-roaring good-time reading experience.

The set-up, as partially given on the back cover of the book, reads like pretty standard stuff. But Williams does lots of subtle and unsubtle things here to set himself -- and the reader --up for a rocking good time. The space empire of the Shaa lasted 10,000 years, but with the death of the last of their race, the old order is breaking down. The Shaa ruled by virtue having the most powerful technology and being ruthlessly violent conquerors. Wormholes enable them to travel interstellar distances in a moment and rule a vast empire. Humanity, the Naxids and the few other races under the yoke of the Shaa haven't done too badly, as long as they were willing to torture and kill those who violated the rules of 'The Praxis', which seems to boil down to: Do what we say and don't ask why.

But that's not the only important underpinning of the series. Not far into the novel, Williams explains that the Shaa prohibited not only disobedience, but also nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cybernetic enhancements, and genetic engineering. Obviously, any of these might have made it possible for the client races to undermine the power of the Shaa, but it also has the helpful side-effect for Williams of enabling him to unfurl a full-blown Buck Rogers/Star Wars style space opera without having to deal with any of the pesky advances of the last 20 years of our history and our science fiction. The empire of the Shaa is different from the British empire of the 19th century in scale, and in the fact that the sun does not shine upon all of it to set, but otherwise Shaa's Burden is rather similar to another unpopular obligation.

'The Praxis' begins with the end; the last of the Shaa, The Anticipation of Victory is dying. With all of the Shaa gone, a power vacuum of galactic proportions will open. Lieutenant Gareth Martinez has a decent place in the Navy under Admiral Enderby. Martinez is a Peer, a small-time Lord, but he's something of a rube, with an accent that marks him as being from the boondocks. He's almost smart enough to know that he's not all that smart. Monitoring a space yacht race from The Ring, a station that encircles Zanshaa, the center of the empire, he's there when a beloved champion's yacht goes out of control. He helps the girl on the scene, Space Cadet (no, I'm not kidding) Caroline Sula, engineer a very clever rescue. They strike up a friendship via video communication over her long journey back to base. We also get Caroline Sula's backstory, her history as a spoiled little rich girl who befriends another girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

Williams writes in straightforward prose that makes it easy to assimilate all the glittering jewels that make up his universe. If some of his aliens seem a little bit vague at first, don't worry, he gets it all straightened out. Gareth Martinez may be callow, but he's not obnoxious. He's not the most experienced Space Lietutenant, but he's lucky -- and highly placed -- enough to have a butler, Alikhan, who is. Alikhan bears more than a little resemblance to another well-known literary butler, and like that fine gentleman, often has all the answers, and is there to make sure that Gareth chooses the correct of the two options he may be considering at any one moment. Willams uses these characters to bring a delightful undercurrent of humor and non-seriousness to his writing. It's very effective and makes the book a lot of fun to read.

Williams also leaves himself quite a bit of room to grow. His treatment of the Caroline Sula character is exemplary and goes places the reader won't expect. It's gritty but not a downer. He uses this character to scale the novel, to bring things down to, if not Earth, well then Zanshaa will do just fine as a stand-in. Alcoholism and drug-addiction were present back in the British Empire, they're prevalent now, and there's no reason to think they're going away any time soon. But Williams demonstrates a light touch with the heavier themes. Caroline Sula is a very nicely turned character. Towards the end of the novel, he introduces Severin, a clever technician working in a remote outpost. By the time Severin comes to full flower, the novel ends. There's clearly a lot more entertainment to be got out of this character, and Williams leaves the reader wanting more.

Williams leaves room to grow on a larger scale as well. There are lots of unanswered questions in 'The Praxis'. The how and why of wormholes, the origin of the Shaa, and the potential for developing technology in the "forbidden" areas are just a few of tantalizing threads. Now, it's not necessary for Williams to answer these questions. He's got a full-bore war on his hands, and readers will be waiting breathlessly to find out what happens next. Aliens and allies, and political skullduggery of the first order are on offer, and readers will find themselves inclined to take Williams up on that offer. In fact, that's the general conclusion one is likely to come to as the novel ends. As 'Book One of Dread Empire's Fall', 'The Praxis' is one hell of a come on. Fortunately, the sequel is already available in and on order from the UK. Earthlight's nicely done trade paperback is a delight to read. But whatever the format, with 'The Praxis', Williams has contributed to the age-old problem of reading addiction. Fortunately, we can't just shoot these books up. We get to read them, one page at a time, and it's surely something to look forward to.