The Sundering - Walter Jon Williams

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Sundering
Book Two of Dread Empire's Fall
Walter Jon Williams
Earthlight Publishers
ISBN: 0743461258 (Amazon link)

The Sundering is the sequel to The Praxis, which I read last Christmas [1]. I remember at the time that I was very excited by a new Walter Jon Williams title, and couldn't wait to see what the author of Aristoi and Metropolitan would do with space opera. I also remember being very disappointed when The Praxis just failed to grab me - I uttered the Eight Deadly Words [2] about a third of the way in, and didn't engage with the plot. I'm not sure why - it was ambitious enough, and had many elements I usually enjoy. With the mediocre memory of reading The Praxis in mind, I nervously approached The Sundering, gambling that Williams could do more with the story now that he had the world, characters, and plot all sketched out.

Sadly though, I almost put The Sundering down when I was only a couple of chapters in. Same problem, I just didn't get drawn in, and worse, found several things I didn't like. Oh, it's readable, and to be fair, it improves a lot beyond the halfway mark, but still - civil war in a mighty interstellar empire, dominated by rich Families leading to a military bigger on fancy uniforms and patronage than actual fighting, a story of doomed love and alien races just should not be so ... dull.

Let's recap the plot: a race called the Shaa had ruled for 10,000 years, establishing a system of laws called The Praxis. The last of the Shaa has finally ritually suicided, plunging the now leaderless empire into civil war. One species, called The Naxids, make a bid for control, launching a massive rebellion against the established order. At Magaria, the Naxids win a crushing victory, and are now advancing on the loyalist capital Zanshaa.

One of the heroes of The Praxis is Lord Gareth Martinez, a provincial of little social standing, but now a war hero, a man who has managed to win against the Naxids by the use of novel tactics, daring to break traditional rules of engagement. Arriving back at Zanshaa, he finds that politics is against him, with the established Peers having little use for his innovations, despising his low status. Worse, his Big Romance with Caroline Sulla, the hero of Magaria, is not going well. Sulla has problems of her own - she is not Sulla, but a low born gangster's moll who appropriated the identity of Lady Sulla, and is now in danger of being unmasked.

Much of the novel is an attempt to depict realistic space warfare - I didn't really buy the concept, which seems rather similar to having tall ships throw broadside after broadside at each other. In this case the broadsides are anti-matter missiles, shepherded along by cadets in pinnaces, and many are used to cancel out the enemies missiles, but the feel of the combat is the same. Long chase, sudden bombardment, side with biggest stock of missiles wins. Martinez's innovations represent a move away from traditional, close-packed and highly regimented formations to looser, more dynamic engagements, with clear parallels to the changes in infantry fighting in our recent history, away from from marching blocks of well drilled, and brightly uniformed soldiers into enemy fire. The problem is that Ender's Game flashed into my head during all this, and I found Martinez's innovations to be too bloody obvious to enjoy. Oh, Williams is too good an author to make that mistake without an excuse - the fleet has existed for too long with nothing but ceremonial duty, and the brightly painted, highly decorated, absurd follies they call warships are led by aristocrats more concerned with their social ranking and the correct etiquette at dinners than with tactics. Still, I felt that the depiction of the shock of real war driving innovation in the military mind was, well, flat. There is a wealth of Napoleonic fiction I could turn to for better versions of that plot. Even on the smaller scale, much of the within ship action has been better covered by Patrick O'Brian et al or even many mil-SF clones. I'll stick with someone like Cherryh for space combat thanks.

The politics was a little better, though again Martinez seems too much the modern outsider - he is a peer after all, but his attitudes are too close to those of the reader. I would have preferred him to have a more alien mindset, to truly appreciate the cut and thrust of social manoeuvring in the way his older brother Roland does. I kept thinking of similar plots elsewhere - for example, the bluff, provincial, military hero Vespasian rising to become Emperor of Rome. Again, Williams just didn't do enough with the politics to excite me.

Sulla's romance with Martinez was better - but Her Awful Secret leads to the characters acting like idiots mid-novel, and while I am intrigued by where Sulla seems to be going on the last page, I didn't really think the story progressed much here. Things were much more eventful in The Praxis. Sulla's main plot in The Sundering concerns her role as a resistance fighter on Zanshaa, putting her life on the line for the daring plan she and Martinez dream up to save the capital world. I am a bit bemused by the concept of Martinez and Sulla not getting their way on changing the accepted procedures for naval engagements despite repeated success, but managing to change the plan for Saving The Empire and All The Nobility... Again though, I found the daring exploits of Sulla and her resistance fighters to be dull and two-dimensional. We're not talking Silk & Cyanide here, this reads more like a Hollywood version of a terrorist war in an occupied city. Certainly it pales to historical parallels.

Okay, so my main problem seems to be that I found all the plot elements inferior to other treatments - maybe I could have enjoyed the synthesis, the way Williams pulls the disparate elements together to make a coherent world, an ancient galactic empire rule by a privileged elite, populated by aliens, now torn asunder? Nope, didn't come together for me. I think the main reason I didn't engage with much of the setting is the aliens. They're not very alien, and worse, Williams resorts to putting humans in funny masks. The Lai-own are flightless birds, who cannot take as much high-G as humans, but they might as well be human. The Torminel are cuddly looking creatures despite being predatory nocturnal carnivores. Again though, the Torminal characters are all bland humans in fuzzy suits. The Daimong are inscrutable to look at and difficult to be around, their flesh constantly rotting and peeling off. Again though, they don't act alien. I was reminded of Haldeman's All My Sins Remembered which I read a week or so ago; in it Haldeman manages to sketch alien aliens with a few lines of interaction, giving them a genuinely different way of viewing the world, their place in it, and how they should relate to humans. Frankly, Williams did a much better job of depicting aliens when writing about post-humans in his Aristoi.

In summary - Williams disappoints with The Sundering, delivering nothing more than competent mid-list space opera. I'll not rush to read the sequel. [3]


[1] I read The Praxis before I started logging what I read, so I can't point to my thoughts on it. I know it's a bit egotistical posting all these reviews, but have found it very interesting for myself to be able to go back several months and see what I thought of a particular title.

[2] The Eight Deadly Words of rec.arts.sf.written are "I Don't Care What Happens To These People."

[3] I wonder when we'll see the final volume, as the publisher, Earthlight, has been re-absorbed by the parent company, who apparently have a bad reputation for dealing with their genre authors.

Posted: Sun - December 7, 2003 at 02:51 PM