Prolific genre-hopper Walter Jon Williams, whose last book was the delightful swashbuckling fantasy Quilifer, returns to space opera with The Accidental War, the beginning of a new trilogy set in the same universe as his celebrated 2000s-era saga The Praxis series, which explored what happens to a which enlivens the traditions of military science fiction with masterfully observed political intrigue as an empire’s elite very politely tear each other apart, with tragic consequences.
The galactic empire is at peace following the revolt that was the subject of the first Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy. Peace—and already settling back into familiar patterns.
With the conclusion of hostilities, there’s nothing the empire’s elites crave more than a return to the old ways of doing things, never mind that the old ways nearly brought the whole thing down.
As the wealthy families consolidate their resources and rebuild their businesses as though nothing has happened, two war heroes find themselves at crossroads.
Gareth Martinez comes from a once powerful but provincial house, and while he made a name for himself during the war, he also made powerful enemies. As a result, he’s reduced to shilling for investment opportunities in planetary development and running a yachting club that offers opportunities to former military pilots without much else to do.
The Lady Sula (or, rather, the woman who long ago claimed the identity of her deceased namesake—you can learn a lot more about that in the recent novella Impersonations), on the other hand, is on the rise as a politician. She’s offered a place in the all-powerful Convocation, though with strings attached: her sponsors are aware of her true identity, and expect her to toe a particular line.
The arrangement largely works: she’s valued for her willingness to make waves, and she does so almost immediately, investigating a suspicious pro forma report from the imperial bank and uncovering a scandal that brings chaos to the galactic economy. Martinez, meanwhile, falls short in shoring up his family’s finances and finds himself taking a portion of the blame for the economic disaster.
Williams interest is less in the titular war—though he does get to that eventually—than in the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of the rich and powerful. The leading families are very good at looking out for their own self-interests, less good at seeing the broader consequences of their actions. By the time their impact becomes clear, not only war, but genocide are in the offing.
There’s a bit of sleight-of hand at work here: surface elements combine to suggest a book that’s a bit different than the one in front of the reader. In short, there’s a great deal more to the story than the title, space-action cover art, and cataloging under military science fiction might suggest. Williams is, by this point, very much at home in the universe of the Praxis, and is happy to take his time in navigating us through its latest intrigue.
The reward is two-fold: a deep dive into an intricately constructed and plausible future world, with pacing that creates escalating tension more common in a thriller or a mystery. We know that there’s an accidental war in the offing, we know that the space battle on the cover is on the way; we just don’t know when.
The languid peace of a postwar empire is headed for a collapse. By the time it arrives, all the elements in play throughout the book—intergalactic banking scandals, political intrigue, yachting—will have all played a role in creating a disaster. A chain of events that begins with the victory of an upstart yachting club and proceeds through failed investments, the exposure of bad banking practices, a planetary strike, and a scandalous bankruptcy starts to feel inexorable. The level of imagination (and research, given that the politics and economics echo our own) Williams has loaded into this universe is a pleasure to experience on its own, even as it greatly enriches the story of the end of a civilization.
This is not a story of heroes and villains. The protagonists are all players at the highest levels of a cut-throat galactic society, and none of their hands are entirely clean. Yet, for the most part, they don’t spend time agonizing over their crimes. On a literal level, Williams suggests the citizens of his galactic empire don’t quite share our morality—but more pointedly, that the wealthy and powerful, in general, are allowed (perhaps expected) to play by different rules.
What’s more, his hidebound empire falls victim to a frequent scourge of civilizations: a refusal to change before it’s too late. There might be lessons here for our own world, but only because Williams has created such a compelling vision of a technological empire with elements from our own present and past. His investment-based economy is certainly familiar, as is the network of clients and patrons, not unlike the one the Ancient Romans formalized, and which has never really gone away. This is no polemic, but he does hold up a mirror to our world, and we might not like all that’s reflected.
The Accidental War eventually breaks open into genuinely exciting action, but the book’s most dramatic moments are the most unlikely ones; a critical turning point takes place over the course of a committee meeting, without a (literal) shot fired. Though the first Praxis trilogy precedes it, readers who enjoyed Ann Leckie’s award-winning Ancillary Justice and its sequels will find similar pleasures here. Williams lays out the slow-burn decline of an empire with supreme confidence. It’s a masterful piece of space opera.