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Superior Space Opera!
on 17 February 2004
The Sundering is the second volume of Walter Jon Williams' newest series, written around the lives of two engaging principals: Lord Gareth Martinez, the ambitious and extremely capable younger son of an enormously wealthy put hopelessly provincial family of Peers; and Lady Caroline Sula, the tormented street-child pulling off a galaxy-class con masquerading as the last surviving member of a disgraced line of Peers. As in the first volume, the action is set within that hoariest of all space opera clichés, the turbulent death-throes of a once all-powerful pan-galactic empire. What might have been just another cookie-cutter effort is instead a wild ride through space with the reader fully engaged in the lives, dreams, and perils of Lord Martinez and Lady Sula. Williams sticks with 'real' physics, forcing his characters to undergo long, punishing accelerations and requiring spaceships to follow ballistics and orbital mechanics. This isn't 'Hard' SF, but it's certainly working towards that. Williams won't force the numbers on you, but he never forgets that Physics are the ultimate player, and he never allows 'magical' performance from his spacecraft. Instead of resisting or wishing inconvenient forces away, he makes the constraints of physics a central driving force to the plot of this series. A refreshing change from the usual!
In the first volume, The Praxis, Williams has done a masterful job of setting the stage and setting the pieces into play. Now, we continue to follow the story as the action heats up and sparks (and missiles) start to really fly. Lord Martinez has become a hero of the Praxis, having managed to commandeer a warship right from under the nose of a massive and thoroughly-plotted conspiracy, and fight his way back to the capital with a skeleton crew. One of the few points of hope in the grim days following the attempted (and largely successful) coup, Martinez is decorated and placed in command of the vessel he commandeered, over the heads of many officers more senior. Further compounding their jealousies, he's placed in command of a light squadron on its way to reenforce a nearby system over a more senior officer. Balancing squadron jealousies and trying to shake his newly-assigned crew into shape, he's stunned to learn of the disastrous defeat that has essentially wiped-out the Home Fleet. Now, in addition to a demanding Commodore, a jealous 'subordinate', and a raw crew, Gareth must find a way to create new tactics that will spare the fleet the annihilation in the face of a superior foe and slavish adherence to hide-bound doctrines ossified in millennia of tradition. Gareth is called to lead his force back to the capital to protect it, but now there's an enemy fleet in his way...
Meanwhile, returning to the capital in a battered and nearly-dead cruiser not her own, Lady Sula is the sole survivor of her ship, and the only other bright spot of hope in the face of disaster and ruin. Part of a massive punitive raid against the traitorous Naxid fleet, Caroline watched helplessly from her pinnace as her ship, and most of the Home Fleet, was reduced to radioactive debris. The Praxis hasn't fought a real space war in over three millennia, and even then wasn't seriously challenged. Centuries of practicing the same drills over and over, with predetermined results guaranteeing the 'correct' outcome, has left the fleet unprepared to face a real conflict where both sides are equally equipped. In an orgy of incandescent mutual destruction, the loyalist and Naxid fleets consume each other in mad embrace. The Naxid fleet, however, is much larger, and while the Home Fleet is reduced to scrap, the Naxids have some resources left, and the capital is no longer protected. Only the patience and skills of Lady Sula allow the escape of any remnant of the home fleet, as she uses her carefully husbanded flight of missiles to punch a path open for their escape. Taking refuge in her communications with Gareth, where they discuss (at very long distance) Gareth's tactical innovations, and where Caroline adds her own distinctive flair and subtlety to the results, Lady Sula and Lord Gareth develop a growing intimacy. This time, Sula is determined that she will not flinch from him, and will make Martinez her own...
However, as always in any decent Opera, True Love does not follow the easy course, and Martinez and Sula will face the political maneuverings of the Family Martinez, its clients, and its sponsors, as well as the intrigues of the Convocation, and of the Navy as well. Looming over the entire tangled mess is the threat of the next move by the rebel Naxids, and the desperate need to find ships to reenforce the scratch fleet now defending the capitol. Professional jealousies and dogmatic superiors, disturbed by the sudden prominence of these two minor peers, throw further monkey wrenches into the works, and it seems the best chance of saving the Praxis may be lost to intrigue, jealousy, and myopia. The Naxids are coming, time is short, and events have taken on an irresistible momentum.
What will the lovers do? What will the Empire do? Read, and find out: You won't be sorry!