Russell Letson Reviews The Accidental War by Walter Jon Williams

The Accidental War, Walter Jon Williams (Harper Voyager 978-0-06-246702-7, $16.99, 476pp, tp) September 2018.

When, back in 2002, I reviewed The Praxis, the first volume of Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, the lede was, “The signals on the outside of [the advance copy of] the first volume of Walter Jon Williams’s new series don’t really prepare you for what’s inside.” I can’t come up with a better lede than that for The Accidental War, which opens what promises to be another big triple-header set in the Praxis universe, and for similar reasons. The promotional copy and cover art say “military SF/space opera” and Blowing Stuff Up, and while there is indeed fighting in and around spacecraft by members of military and paramilitary organizations, there is also much, much more – most of which takes place before the first shots are fired well past the book’s halfway point.

An initial clue might be the seven-page Dra­matis Personae, which maps the large cast by family, species, institution, interest group, and social rank and affiliation. This is a novel about a society at war, and the 12,000-year-old empire of the departed Shaa and their inflexible Praxis is top-heavy with aristocratic clans, resistant to innovation, and governed by the machineries of custom and cronyism and patron-client relation­ships. In the absence of the Shaa masters, the multi-species polity is revealed as sclerotic and riddled with snobbery and rivalries between old privilege and new money. A second clue points in a different direction: a Prologue outlining what can happen to a species that shows complete, non-violent indifference to cooperation with the planetary-development plans of an ambitious and greedy lord of the Praxis.

The series’ protagonists, Captain Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula, both suffer under this rigid­ity. At the end of Conventions of War (2005) they emerged as heroes of the civil conflict that followed death of the last Shaa, and after a strained romantic relationship they have gone in separate directions. In the intervening seven years the culture of the empire has largely returned to its old, old ways. In this environment, upstart Fleet hotshots (Martinez) and survivors of disgraced clans (Sula), however be-medaled, are still not welcome into the (often literally) refurbished corridors of power. In fact, there are legions of veterans who lack the patronage to get interesting and useful employment in the Fleet.

Not that Martinez or Sula are in terrible straits, though both would much rather be on duty instead of hanging around as officers-without-commands. Martinez has married, reasonably happily, into the old high aristocracy, and his own family is nouveau-riche wealthy enough for him to start a space-yacht racing club as a way of filling the empty hours while exercising his piloting skills. Sula has been unsuc­cessful at finding a satisfying post until an associate from her carefully concealed criminal past, having reinvented himself as a fixer, helps her to a seat on the governing Convocation. From that perch, in what should have been boring sinecure positions, she is set to gain some interesting insights into the workings of the upper crust.

More than half the novel is given over to the protagonists’ movements through imperial society, official and civilian: ceremonies, celebrations, recep­tions, yacht races, committee hearings, business and dynastic negotiations. And along the way, they (and we) are able to observe the folly and incompetence that leads to a multi-world financial crisis that has an unmistakable resemblance to one in our own recent history. (The details occupy an entire chapter.) The response of some of the aristocrats who get burned is to blame “Terran criminals” (and the Martinez clan in particular) and to inflame the populist Steadfast League, which wants to make the Praxis great again, preferably by mob violence against Terrans. The riots that follow – one is described in detail – infect reactionary elements in the government and Fleet, and humans find themselves in danger of becoming a species non grata. And that is what leads to the breakout of actual warfare.

This comes as no surprise to Sula, who had not expected the previous civil war to bring peace and stability, “Because we still have a government that could permit something like the Naxid War in the first place” – a government run by former subject species that “were good… at sucking up to the Shaa. But not good… at making decisions, or questioning themselves, or coping with changed circumstances.” So when she finds herself and her allies on the run and sharing a space liner with an entire company of famously overzealous imperial enforcers, it’s just as well that she has come prepared for the kind of guerilla-style dirty work she perfected in the civil war. Martinez, fleeing in an unarmed luxury craft filled with old colleagues and family members, faces a different kind of threat, but one also amenable to the unconventional problem-solving that got him all those decorations on his uniform. Their parallel actions form the climactic sequences of this volume, but those battles are clearly nowhere near the end of the story.

Whether it is a trilogy (as the marketing copy calls it) or merely, as the title page has it, “A Novel of the Praxis,” The Accidental War is the start of some­thing more, an unpacking of the givens of its setting and an exploration of the intersecting trajectories of its characters’ lives. I am not particularly wed to any particular number of volumes – trilogy, schmilogy; I would not object to Williams following the model of Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-volume Aubrey-Maturin saga or C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. This world is capacious enough and its people complex enough to carry on indefinitely.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.

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