Walter Jon Williams brings his “Dread Empire’s Fall” trilogy to a close with Conventions of War. The book continues the pattern of the earlier volumes ( The Sundering and The Praxis) — galactic-scope space opera, alien races, staggering set-piece space battles, and further trials for the heroic characters. The series concerns Gareth Martinez; a D’Artagnan-like figure who arrives in the imperial capital as a member of the upper class but is unable to shake his provincial accent. Like D’Artagnan, he is eager for glory and advancement, and struggles against the forces of conservatism and favoritism that hold him back. Also playing a lead role is Caroline Sula, another Peer, with a mysterious past. Together (and apart), the two become key figures in a civil war that splits an aeons-old galctic empire when the last of the Shaa, the ruling species, dies.
Let me begin with warning that the marketing blurbs on this series are about as misleading as any I’ve seen; I have to wonder if the marketer who wrote them had even read a summary of the books. This isn’t a knock against the books themselves, but it can set up a bad case of frustrated reader expectations.
Williams is one of my favorite authors, and while he doesn’t disappoint, the book does not live up to some of his earlier works. The world-building (a particular strength of Williams, especially in Metropolitan and Aristoi) is unexceptional; there’s little to this star-spanning empire that would have been unfamiliar to SF readers in the 50s. The empire is supposed to be “Dread,” according to the series title, but there’s little dread about it other than a weary sort of conservatism, and a stultified social order. But there’s little different between the empire of the Praxis and empires from human history; pre-Revolutionary France or Russia, for example.
While Williams has done a decent job creating alien races with plausible appearance and he’s clearly worked out the biology in his head, they act more or less like humans in rubber costumes. It’s hard to imagine that such bizarre creatures would adapt so well to a social structure that resembles a human feudal system. I would have liked to see some convincingly alien behavior, not just alien shapes.
The plotting is oddly paceless; other than the pagecount in your left and right hands, there’s little to tell you that you’re reaching the conclusion. This is exacerbated by an episodic structure: for example, Martinez takes time out from battling the enemy Naxids to solve a murder case aboard ship.
And while we cheer for the characters, the “good guys” aren’t really significantly good by 21st Century lights, and so it’s hard to be too excited about replacing one undemocratic government with another. And the opponents are laughably incompetant, so there’s little dramatic tension. By the third book, most of the battles are foregone conclusions. A good villain makes a book, and no main villain ever emerges to give the conflict shape.
These weaknesses are more than overcome by Williams’ writing; while I had little doubt in the outcome, I was neverthelesss swept along and finished the book in a weekend. The space battles are a particular strength: Williams has made a real contribution by working out tactics and strategy for what may be the most realistic set of assumptions of space battles ever. Crew must suffer through the gravities generated by extreme acceleration or deceleration; the speed of light limits the view that the ships have of the battlefield; missiles and drones play a key role. These set pieces are flawlessly executed and are the highlight of the book.
The second main strength is Williams ability to paint complex and interesting characters. Martinez and Sula are deep characters with layers of internal conflicts, and the playing out of their own issues and their complex, screwed-up relationship is really the centerpiece of the series. (In this, the series echoes Scott Westerfeld’s “The Risen Empire,” which also shows the impact that a single love affair can have on a galactic war.)
Summary: While fans of space opera won’t find surprises here, the writing is strong and Williams executes well. The characterization is stronger than is typical for science fiction, and the space battles alone are worth the price of admission.