The Praxis is the first book in the (completed!) Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy by Walter Jon Williams. The second book in this space opera/military science fiction series is The Sundering, and the final book is Conventions of War.
The immortal Shaa have conquered the galaxy with the singular goal of bringing all races together to follow the truth of the Praxis. Despite their best efforts, each Shaa has found they have been losing their recent memories and have been unable to enjoy the results of their dominion. One by one, the Shaa have been dying and now only one of them remains, Anticipation of Victory, who was named when the plans for Shaa conquest were being formed. The final Shaa has decided he has done all he can to ensure nothing ever changes after his death and that it is time to begin preparations for his departure from the universe.
Unfortunately for Lieutenant Gareth Martinez, his fleet commander is undergoing the great honor of representing his family as a sacrifice on the day Anticipation of Victory dies – which Martinez views as suicidal to his own career. However, Martinez becomes famous when he sees a runaway yacht during a race and figures out a possible way to stop it. His idea is successfully executed by the cadet Caroline Sula. Although it is too late for the pilot by the time the rescue is carried out, Sula is awarded for her bravery and effectiveness at capturing the vessel. Two such competent people may be just what the Empire needs with the impending end of the Shaa reign.
Writing a description for this book was very difficult since it is the beginning of a trilogy and I feel like the pivotal, important moment didn’t happen until close to the end. So even though this is mentioned on the back cover of the book, I consider it a spoiler and am leaving it out of the plot summary. In spite of this not occurring for quite a while and feeling like somewhat of a setup for the rest of the books in the series, I found this novel mostly held my interest pretty well – there was some action, but it was mostly politics and character development, which I prefer to read about anyway.
There are two main point of view characters, Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula, and I really liked both of them even if (or perhaps because) they were rather flawed. Both of them were intelligent, competent people, but both of them also had a drive to succeed that could make them seem ruthless (Sula more so than Martinez but they were both trying to climb the hierarchy any way they could). Yet I found both very sympathetic, particularly as they both were striving to be successful with careers in a military that seemed rather pointless:
“Any luck in finding a good posting?” Sula asked.
“No. Not yet.”
“Does it have to be a staff job?”
Martinez shook his head. “I don’t mind ship duty. But I’d like it to be a step up, not a step back or sideways.” He put his arms on the table and sighed. “And it would be nice to be in a position to actually accomplish something. I have this ridiculous compulsion not to be totally useless. But that’s difficult in the service, isn’t it? Some days it’s a struggle to find a point in it all. Do you know what I mean?”
Sula looked at him and nodded. “We’re in a military that hasn’t fought a real war in thirty-four hundred years, and most of its engagements before and since consisted of raining bombs on helpless populations. Yes, I know what you mean.” She cocked her head, silver-gilt hair brushing her shoulders. “Occasionally we pull off a nice rescue,” she said. “Though we hardly need cruisers or battleships for that, do we? But all those big ships make terrific platforms for enhancing the grandeur and self-importance of senior captains and fleet commanders, and grandeur and self-importance are what holds the empire together.” [pp. 122 – 123]
Have to love Sula’s boldness. She’s a cadet and the last member of the Sula family, who were once important and very rich until they were executed for attempted embezzlement. Now she’s lost a lot and can only have a military job, although she is determined to rank first in the lieutenant exams and make a name for herself that way. But there’s a lot more to Sula than meets the eye, as is revealed through the bits and pieces of her back story that are included throughout the novel. Although it’s obvious from close to the beginning how it ended, it’s still a rather interesting story
Martinez is from a wealthy family, but they are not the highest people in the hierarchy and some look down on him for his uncultured accent. He is brighter and more efficient than most of those he works with and one has to feel sorry for him, especially when he ends up working for a man whose main concern is having the best football team in the fleet.
Much of the plot is concerned with politics, such as how both Martinez and Sula attempt to rise within the hierarchy. There is a subplot of a marriage arranged solely for the purpose of bettering the Martinez family, and there are quite a few dinners and parties and lots of emphasis on social roles.
Other than the characters and politics, I also really enjoyed the society developed and maintained by the Shaa. The Shaa are fanatical about upholding The Praxis and using it to wage a universal crusade to convert the masses. Once they have a people following their laws, they have no qualms whatsoever about making the punishment far worse than the crime and harming those who are innocent to ensure that anyone else will think twice before committing the same mistake. They do not allow AIs, genetic engineering or immortality and enforce a rigid social structure. Where the Shaa and the tenets of The Praxis came from remain a mystery and hopefully there will be more about this in the sequels.
Any complaints about this book are fairly minor. There were some slow parts and it did take me a little while to get into it after the prologue and the first chapter (which were great). The parts about The Praxis fascinated me, but there were few enough of those that it wasn’t until I started to get to know Martinez and Sula that I really started to warm up to it. Some parts were fairly predictable, but they were so obvious that must have been intentional and the journey was interesting enough that it didn’t really matter anyway. Also, it felt like it did take most of the book to get to what I assume is the main conflict in the trilogy, but the rest of the story entertained me enough that it didn’t really matter a whole lot to me.
The Praxis is a promising start to the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy. The characters, political situations and society were all fascinating enough to make up for the few slow parts, and I look forward to reading the second book.
My Rating: 7.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.