Review Date: 25 August 2003

The Praxis, by Walter Jon Williams
UK: Earthlight, London, October 2002, 418 pages, Paperback, UK£10.99, ISBN:0-7434-6110-X
US: HarperTorch, New York, NY, August 2003, 418 pages, Paperback, US$7.50, ISBN:038082020X
a review by Rich Horton

Walter Jon Williams's The Praxis is the first volume of a series called collectively Dread Empire's Fall. It was published last year in the UK, and is due in the US any day now, a mass market paperback from HarperTorch. The UK edition is subtitled "Book One of Dread Empire's Fall", while the US edition is labeled Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis.

This book is unabashed Space Opera, and I found it extremely fun reading. Every so often the characterization or the plotting seems to fall back on cliché -- and after the basic setup is pretty familiar, particular the rehashing of Naval Fiction standard situations. The book is also clearly the first of a series, thus the story doesn't really end -- those factors hold it short of excellence. But it's very good -- neatly conceived, with plenty of gripping action, and with two main characters who are interesting, and flawed in believable ways even while also supremely gifted in fairly standard commercial fiction fashions.

The parts of the Galaxy linked by an extensive wormhole network are ruled, as the story opens, by the long-lived aliens called Shaa. They control several other spacegoing species -- the lizardlike Naxids, humans, the birdlike Lai-Own, the furry Torminel, etc. The basic philosophy of the Shaa is that everything worth knowing is already known. Their governing system, the Praxis, attempts to enforce absolute stability. Machine intelligence, genetic engineering, and certain other technology is forbidden. The ruling style is extremely hierarchical, and superiors have the right to kill inferiors for any reason whatsoever. The subordinate species seems essentially equal, sharing government and military posts, though there seem to be worlds, even sectors, dominated by one or another species.

Now the very last of the Shaa has decided to die. This impacts the future of Lord Gareth Martinez, an up and coming Naval officer. His main patron has been chosen to die along with the Shaa, and Martinez, who is brilliant and rich but handicapped by his family's relatively low, provincial, standing, represented by his vulgar accent. But he gains some fame when he coordinates a daring rescue attempt. And the rescue attempt is piloted by Lady Caroline Sula, the only remaining member of a formerly powerful family that has fallen into disgrace. The two are both decorated, and when they meet each other, sparks fly. But Sula has some deep personal issues which make her skittish about relationships. Her backstory is slowly revealed in flashbacks. (These flashbacks were published separately as the novella "Margaux" in the May 2003 Asimov's.)

Martinez ends up posted to a ship run by a football-mad (football = soccer) Captain. Martinez and a few others including his trusty old batman (yes, a cliché) run the ship while the Captain and his various good footballers who are worthless as naval types practice. The ship makes its way to a Naxid dominated system, and Martinez notices some very suspicious Naxid behaviour. He concludes correctly that they are planning to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the death of the last Shaa and try to assert their status as the first race conquered by the Shaa and take the Shaa position at the top of the heap. Martinez's perspicacity and his brilliant tactics keep the Naxid operation from being a complete success.

Back on the capitol planet, Zanshaa, the Naxid attempt to take over the ruling Convocation is also foiled, partly by luck, and the other species quickly mobilize for a war. Sula's hopes for a quick promotion are ruined when her lieutenant's exams are interrupted by the rebellion. But this leaves her in position to once again use her piloting skills and become a war hero of her own.

And so come the opening battles of what looks likely to be an extended war. The book ends pretty much on a note of "to be continued". Cleary Martinez and Sula are destined for each other one way or another, though Williams has managed to make their future ambiguous -- Sula's past could come back to haunt her, and Martinez' conceit and overweening ambition could ruin things as well. I'll be eagerly looking forward to future volumes, and I'm sure there will be plenty more space battles, alien political intrigue, and an involving personal pair of stories for our two heroes.