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The Praxis
Walter Jon Williams
Earthlight paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

The Shaa have ruled a multi-species, galaxy spanning empire for ten millennia, built through conquest and control of wormholes and maintained by absolute power and rigid control codified in the Praxis. This religion/rule book begins with the axiom that "all that is important is known" and precludes genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and just about every other new trope of SF in the last 40 years. Terrans were the second species to fall to the Shaa and are thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the empire, from its underworld to the Peers - clans with clients and interests that bind the empire together in duty and tradition. The empire has two arms - a civil service, where there is a mix of species, and the fleet where each ship is crewed by a single species. The Shaa's will to live has faded and now the last of the species is about to die, secure in the knowledge that the client races are thoroughly inculcated with the Praxis and that peace and stability will prevail. Of course, given that this book is the first part of Dread Empire's Fall, this cannot be so.
   All this is neatly interwoven into a plot that smoothly introduces the limits of technology and the nature of the players. The primary protagonist is Lieutenant Martinez, a rather lowly Peer from a provincial planet who, as second son, has chosen the navy as a route to success. He seems to be rather more freethinking than the Praxis might desire, but those characters who are true believers are difficult to sympathise with. Martinez falls for Sula, a navy pilot and the only remnant of a once-senior Peer family. Sula's backstory, interspersed through the book, explains how she has come to such a position. This gives depth to the empire but does not otherwise add much to the story as the revelation within it is telegraphed almost from the beginning; perhaps more of what we have learned will be important in the ongoing story. Martinez' attempt to romance Sula is interrupted as he is shipped off to the second fleet, far from the centre of the empire while she is left in the capital, attempting to make something of herself.
   Williams builds believable, sympathetic characters and action and danger is interspersed with soap opera while he makes his preparations for the full-on space opera that is to come. When it does, it is excellent. Williams has put some serious thought into his space mechanics and the dynamics of three-dimensional battles at sub-light speeds. The nature of strategic planning is understandable while the action is fast and furious and the outcome by no means certain. This large picture of the war is painted without losing focus on individuals either. As space opera is both a venerable and a popular sub-genre, all this is necessary for the book to succeed. Williams is navigating a meteor cloud of cliché yet the writing is excellent throughout, the build up is interesting and the characters are well rounded. The success of the trilogy depends on whether the author can keep the plot up to the standards of the writing. So far, The Praxis is an entertaining read and a promising beginning.

Related item:
tZ  A Cascade Of Invention: Walter Jon WIlliams - interviewed
The Praxis

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