Russell Letson Reviews Imperium Restored by Walter Jon Williams
Imperium Restored, Walter Jon Williams (Harper Voyager 978-0-06246-705-8, $17.99, 496 pp, tp) September 2022.
Twenty years ago, Walter Jon Williams started a trilogy, Dread Empire’s Fall, that has since grown to seven novels (two trilogies and a standalone short novel), a novella, and a short story, and gotten new series labels: the First and Second Books of the Praxis. The main line of the series is arguably one long narrative, divided (like C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series) into three-book arcs, with an intervening seven-year gap. The newest entry, Imperium Restored, concludes the trio that began with The Accidental War and Fleet Elements, and provides a landing place that may or may not be permanent.
I will repeat (again) the observation I made at the very start, two decades back: that despite marketing language and cover iconography, these are not only space-operatic military adventures but also novels of manners, which makes them future-setting cousins of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin wooden-ships novels. (They are also structural cousins: both are romans-fleuves that stretch their extended narratives across multiple volumes and do not necessarily need to be read in order.) Here character and social observation and the intersection of the private-personal-professional and the large-scale-public are as crucial as the melodrama of battles and Blowing Stuff Up. The Praxis novels are not only about what the protagonists do in war, but about what warfare and its machineries and its disruptions do to them and for them.
For the five preceding main line series volumes, the military careers of Gareth Martinez and Lady Caroline Sula have been propelled by the crises and conflicts following the ceremonial suicide of the last of the Shaa, the absolute rulers of a sclerotic, 12,000-year-old, multispecies interstellar empire. In the power vacuums and the civil wars and political upheavals that follow, the pair, separately and together, are able to exercise their considerable martial gifts and rise to heights they would not have under the Shaa. They have also carried on an intense but intermittent affair, fueled and complicated by the push-pull of erotic connection, class dynamics, and the fortunes of war. Now their professional ambitions and personal tensions intersect again as they fight what promises to be the last battles of the second civil war, with the future of the empire – and its ancient, totalizing governing framework, the Praxis – at stake.
A major nonmilitary thread throughout has been Sula’s backstory. She is actually a colony-world slum girl, and her climb up the social and military ladders began when she disposed of and impersonated the real Lady Caroline Sula, a secret that has always undermined her happiness and security. As Imperium Restored begins, she is cleaning up the blood spilled at the end of its predecessor, Fleet Elements, wherein Sula killed a prospective blackmailer and then enlisted a horrified Martinez to help dispose of the body and cover up the murder. This does nothing good for their already-fraught relationship, which has always been equal parts military cooperation and competition and high-voltage erotic attraction.
But the backbone of the novel is indicated by the title: the winding down of the second civil war, with each contending faction claiming to be the true inheritor of the Praxis. And that contention will be settled by space warfare, which occupies the first half of the novel and offers a detailed account of strategy, tactics, and logistics, along with examinations of how personalities and military-bureaucratic structures can affect outcomes. And there are the frequent reminders that this space navy is not all missiles and maneuvers:
An officer of Martinez’s rank didn’t travel just with a trunk of clothing and a toiletries case, but with silver wine coolers, with monogrammed porcelain and crystal place settings for formal dinners, with cases of wine and spirits and bags of coffee beans… [to be] be tucked away in cupboards, closets, and pantries.
Once the battles are over (though the dinner parties continue), the political part of restoration begins, and it is going to be a tricky business. The civil wars were not simple two-sided conflicts but matters of faction and class and ideology, and the end of warfare does not mean end of conflict. There are tensions, rivalries, and alliances among and between those with primal attachment to the Praxis (even in the absence of the brutally absolutist Shaa); the Praxis-in-name-only facades of factions and opportunists; and elements that are more thoroughly reformist or revolutionary. Tensions over innovation versus tradition and flexibility versus rigidity are exacerbated by rivalries among new-rich arrivistes and opportunists and conservatives who want nothing beyond putting the Praxis back together. The possibilities for civic conflict are considerable.
After the battles and the medals and promotions (and demotions and paybacks), there are domestic and social matters to rearrange, careers to realign, and personal losses to mourn. Sula’s dreams – nightmares, actually – are haunted by the deaths and losses that have followed her career, and she takes refuge in alcohol and derivoo, a pain-filled vocal style “solely practiced by human women” that sounds like a descendant of the blues and fado. “[I]ts subject matter was pure melodrama: death, violence, abandonment, and devastation…. Sula thought [it] told the truth about life, which was that life was fatal.” Her mantra is “Everything dies. Nothing matters.”
But some things might matter, and believing her naval career dead-ended, she pursues new opportunities in civilian politics. As an amateur scholar of Terran history, she is familiar with the range of human political arrangements and their attendant flaws. The trouble with democracy, she reflects, “was that nobody was really in charge of anything,” so she wonders whether a straight-up, get-stuff-done military dictatorship (with the help of “a planet-shattering fleet overhead”) might be the best solution for a post-Praxis polity. She also takes a new lover, a (non-military) doctor who is so grounded and sensible that I kept waiting for something terrible to happen to him.
But the course of true (or temporary or arranged) love never does run smoothly. Martinez, despite his eminently successful marriage and his shock at stumbling on a murder, cannot entirely shake his feelings for Sula: “[L]ove had been not only the most important thing but also the most devastating thing…. The thing that exalted him and stirred him and left him wretched and stumbling half-broken into the light of day.” Nevertheless, the novel’s final chapters have an Austenian note (including a familiar explicit reference), though Aunt Jane would probably not share Sula’s reflection that “midwinter is the season… of weddings and executions.” It ends with a flurry of pairings-off, at least one a genuine love match and others practical-political-social alliances designed to advance or cement the interests of all parties.
The final scenes land various cast members in stable and promising – or at least tolerable – endings. Though between the empire’s intractable political-cultural problems and the simmering tensions beneath some of those safe landings, the series retains options for mischief and discord that can be exercised at some future date. Because happily is not necessarily ever after.
Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. 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 December 2022 issue of Locus.
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