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The Sundering: Book Two of Dread Empire's Fall

by Walter Jon Williams

(Earthlight, £10.99, 452 pages, trade paperback, published 10 November 2003. Pocket Books, £6.99, 452 pages, mass market paperback, published 4 October 2004.)

In book one of Dread Empire's Fall, The Praxis, the ancient Empire of the mighty, cover scannon-human Shaa began to fall apart (in fact, it didn't even last six months after the last of the Shaa died...). The Naxids, the Shaa's first subject race attempted a coup d'etat, but botched the job, leaving the Empire's governing Convocation intact, and sparking a lethal war.

Williams's two protagonists, Lord Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula, are both Naval personnel, and as the anti-matter bombs and laser beams flew at the end of book one they distinguished themselves, by quick thinking, fast reactions and a bit of luck. Accordingly, both promoted, they have begun to discover that higher rank brings bigger headaches...

In both cases, as seems to be common in the Dread Empire, the biggest headaches seem to be caused by incompetent superiors. The Empire, bluntly, is riddled with them. Twelve millennia of social, scientific, political and military stasis have produced an aristocracy packed with decadent drones whose only expertise seems to lie in enriching themselves (in wartime, naturally enough, they become profiteers, and manipulators of defence contracts...).

Then again, Caroline has the continuing problems of her murky past to contend with, while Gareth has to deal with a good deal of political and social garbage, produced by the sly machinations of his elder brother Roland, who's dead set on seeing each of his siblings (Gareth, plus three sisters) marry to the best advantage of Clan Martinez.

Briefly, the two heroes manage to get together... only to blow apart again as Caroline's past rises up and bites... Thrown back into (very different) combat situations, they are back on the front line just in time to get a taste of how very nasty this war is going to get. The big guns are still flying in space, but ground level combat, and guerilla resistance begin to heat up too, and Williams is happy to put his characters into tight spots, and morally dubious positions.

This, really, is the developing meat of the story. Dread Empire's Fall is fundamentally soft Space Opera, but, if Williams turns out to have the courage of his convictions, it's Space Opera that may prove to have a very sharp edge indeed. Both Gareth and Caroline find themselves, irresistibly, drawn into military actions which cause innocent deaths, lots of them. This is war on a very large scale. There are planets in the firing line, and nobody plans guerilla raids without risking 'collateral damage.'

The question, really, is can Williams give his protagonists the depth they need to confront what they're doing? Will their consciences cry out? Let alone compel changes in action, or character? It's too early to tell, but that's the substance of the story-telling challenge Williams has taken on. Needless to say, in light of the current real-world Internationl political and military situation, this is a very serious subject to have taken on.

Additionally, The Sundering is a good read. Despite the fact that Gareth and Caroline spend a great deal of time strapped down in acceleration couches in warships tortuously piling on velocity, Williams manages to keep the interest level high. Someone is always fighting some kind of rear-guard action, against hidden secrets, against political disaster, against moronic upper-echelon officers... Admittedly, there is nothing in this novel quite so striking as the quick-witted way Gareth handled the first hint of the Naxid revolt in The Praxis, but the story maintains its momentum, and the chracters are appealing.

Good work, and if Williams bites the bullet this may even qualify as "Grown-Up Science Fiction."

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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