The Sundering (Dread Empire’s Fall #2) – Walter Jon Williams (2003)
‘The 10,000 year rule of the Shaa is over. But their passing has left the galaxy leaderless. The many races of the empire now find themselves paranoid and fractious, facing civil war on an unprecedented scale. After ten millennia of peace, so begins the tale of a dread empire’s fall…
The alien Naxids have won a shattering victory, and the way is clear for an advance on the loyalist capital. To help save the city comes Lord Gareth Martinez, formerly a despised provincial officer, now a celebrated war hero. But three types of enemy await Martinez. The first are rivals in the service. The second are the intrigues of his brother. And the third is a mysterious survivor, Caroline Sula, a woman whose beautiful face conceals a deadly secret, and whose brilliant mind holds the key to victory over the Naxids.
Both sides claim the legitimacy, but as battle is joined, the very real danger exists that there will be nothing left for the victims to rule…’
Blurb from the 2004 Pocket Books paperback edition.
The second instalment of ‘Dread Empire’s Fall’ is, happily, an improvement on ‘The Praxis’, especially since it takes us into darker territory.
The Naxid rebels have attempted to stage a coup following the suicide of the last of The Shaa, the race that ruled a galactic empire for ten thousand years. Their initial attempt was failed, and now the other races, led by a multi-species government, are marshalling their forces to defeat the Naxids.
Once again the narrative moves between Captain Gareth Martinez, the young military genius with minor social standing – and Lady Caroline Sula – in actual fact a servant called Gredel who killed the real Lady Sula and took her place.
Between them they have to evolve new battle tactics for a space navy which hasn’t seen action in ten thousand years, and for an aristocracy which considers their new ideas to be impertinence.
Williams writes best when he’s focussing in on a room, a scene, a conversation. One cannot fault his human characterisation, since all his human characters are exquisitely rounded and easily distinguishable from one another.
The aliens however are less distinctive and are defined more by their physical attributes and habits than by their words and actions.
Williams’ other weakness is his unwillingness to draw back and give the reader some scale. There is no sense of the vastness of space, of the sheer size of the Shaa Empire itself. At one point in the novel a habitat ring is destroyed and some of the ring crashes to the planet below, causing worldwide devastation and death.
Williams attempts to portray the enormity of the event, made all the more tragic by it being a mistake that should not have happened, but it does not come across as being an important moment in the novel.
What saves the book is Williams’ brilliantly understated sense of institutionalised decadence and pomposity which somehow infuses this society without the author proselytising.
In tandem with the Civil War runs the Austen-esque romance of Gareth and Sula. They are very obviously the sundered lovers who are passionate about each other but cannot be together. Martinez proposes to Sula but she hesitates when he mentions (as you do) that they’ll have to visit the aristocratic gene bank to provide blood to confirm their identities and bloodline. He takes her hesitation for rejection and goes off in a huff and marries someone else.
Meanwhile Sula gets recruited into a resistance movement on the central planet preparing for when the Naxids invade, and Gareth gets posted to ‘The Illustrious’ under the deliciously peculiar Fleet Captain Gomber Fletcher. Gareth and Sula think of each other often and blow a lot of things up.
The Naxids are conspicuous by their absence, seen only as an abstract force rather than individuals, a device which doesn’t really work. They appear as a fleet of ships at one point, and as units of a brutal police operation toward the end of the novel. However, refreshingly, it is made clear that not all the Naxids are involved in the coup. The vast majority of the species are carrying on their lives within the Empire and supporting the multi-species government.