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The Praxis: Book One of Dread Empire's Fall

by Walter Jon Williams

(Earthlight, £10.99, 417 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £17.99, published 7 October 2002. Uncorrected book proof reviewed. Earthlight, 6.99, 417 pages, paperback, first published 2002, this edition published 2 June 2003.)

For 12,481 years the mighty, inscrutable Shaa have dominated their interstellar Empire. They have conquered a dozen lesser races, Humans among them, and forged a general galactic peace under their all-encompassing social and legal code, the Praxis. The Praxis enforces a stasis on scientific advancement, a rigid hierarchy on its subjects, a series of brutally punitive penalties for malefactors (flaying, dismemberment, immolation...) and rejoices in the very self-satisfied motto: "All That Is Important Is Known."

So, what has twelve millennia of subservience actually done to humanity? Well, not a whole hell of a lot, actually. Humans have their place in the Empire's governance, in its fleet, its industries and politics. Human Clans share the elite positions with non-human Clans, and dicker with them over patronage, trade and influence.

Meanwhile, on the underbelly of society the usual hustlers, pimps and crooks do their dirty work, the no-hopers and uneducated trash lead small and hopeless lives, and the great mass of the middle-class just hums along quietly in the background. Then again, human or not, no-one gets very far under the Praxis by themselves. It's all patronage; who you know, who owes you favours, who's responsible for your well-being and advancement. This is a byzantine society, and a deeply decadent one, especially at the top, and especially in science (cutting-edge personal ID confirmation? they do it by fingerprint) but it's not exactly exotic.

Sure, there are a few genuine creative wrinkles; the Legion of Diligence, which makes sure everyone toes the line (and does unmentionable things to them if they don't), the slightly death-besotted, "my life does not matter, I just exist to serve," attitude of the people who actually sincerely believe in the Praxis. But by and large its really business as usual, and everyone is looking out for number one, or simply for the advantage of their Clan.

Thus is the scene set for the death of the last of the Shaa. A prey to memory exhaustion and ennui, the Imperial Race has been dying out for millennia, and the moment fast approaches when the curtain will come down, leaving their subject races to continue in their appointed roles.

Or, perhaps not.

The novel offers two protagonists, Lord Lieutenant Gareth Martinez, a provincial naval officer, with brains, ambition, and not enough money or influence to suit him, and Lady Cadet Caroline Sula, last scion of a once great and recently disgraced Clan, set on climbing out of obscurity on the (rather unorthodox) basis of her own considerable merits.

So, Gareth and Caroline play their games of opportunity and ambition. They tackle the challenges that fate throws their way, negotiate, scheme, circle around each other in mutual attraction, while the Empire coasts serenely onward for two thirds of the book, to and through the death of the last of the Shaa.

At which point, the story suddenly stops loafing, and starts to gallop. Prior to this William has certainly provided plenty of character interest and plot development, and it's well enough written, for a soft-science, big-empire space opera out of the Dune stable, but until the two thirds mark it doesn't truly grab your attention. Not until the last of the Shaa croaks and the conspiracies start bubbling to the surface does the tension level leap and Williams start to show what he's capable of as a story-teller.

And he's capable of a great deal. When plots boil up around his heroes, when they have to make fast, smart decisions, and try and drag their hopelessly hidebound, dull or incompetent fellows and superiors along with them, you really see the odds stacking up and start rooting for them.

The Praxis is, overall, well-told space opera. Sure, it doesn't have any really big ideas in it, it offers little or nothing that is exotic in alien species, technology, society or philosophy (and honestly, an Empire that has subsisted for 12,481 years under a single overarching code, should do) but in its later stages it's a rousing tale.

Final verdict: It ain't profound, but it is enjoyable, approach it with low expectations, and let Williams entertain you.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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