Several years ago—don’t ask me exactly how many: dates are a little fuzzy—I came across a fascinating space opera trilogy. “Dread Empire’s Fall,” it was called, set in a rigidly hierarchical empire where humans were just one of many alien species, and where status outweighed competence every single time. At least until civil war (the Naxid War) broke out in the Praxis, as the empire was called, and it became just a little important to have people who could win battles, when there were battles that needed winning.
Walter Jon Williams’ Impersonations takes place after the events of the “Dread Empire’s Fall” trilogy. The Naxid War has ended, partly due to the actions of Captain the Lady Caroline Sula. Winning a battle against orders didn’t exactly endear Caro to her superiors, though, so Captain the Lady Sula finds herself exiled to a backwater planet with neither military nor economic importance: a nowhere posting. That posting is Earth, with whose culture Caro has long been fascinated. For her, it’s not the hardship post it might otherwise be.
Caro has secrets. The largest and most dangerous is that she’s an imposter: in her teens, she murdered the original Lady Caroline Sula and took her place. And Caro has enemies, as will come to be clear. Earth isn’t the boring duty-station she was expecting: there’s a privately-owned warship with a contract to use her naval dock, an old acquaintance from the original Lady Sula’s schooldays has shown up expecting to renew their friendship—bringing Caro face to face with the threat of exposure.
Also making Caro worry somewhat for her continued rank and position (and life expectancy) is the fact that a bunch of avid Earth war-gamers who are intensely interested in her last battle have been researching her life and personal history looking for insight. Meanwhile, her tour of Earth’s cultural hotspots grows complicated when a meeting with a local business executive goes awry, resulting in an assassination attempt and Caro’s discovery that someone has been impersonating her, in order to forge evidence that might get her imprisoned—or worse.
Caro is racing against the clock in order to uncover the limits of the conspiracy. And that’s before a major volcanic eruption disrupts transport at the space terminal, and leaves Caro, her bodyguards, and her impersonator trapped in an underwater facility and searching for a way out before things get even worse.
More novel climaxes should include volcanic eruptions. That’s style.
Impersonations is a short novel, but it’s a tight one. Williams has admirable precision of prose and an elegant turn of phrase, and throughout Impersonations, he maintains the taut pacing and disciplined tension of the adventure-thriller: with its multiple angles, many agendas, and competing betrayals, there’s more than a whiff of the old-fashioned spy thriller about it. (As Williams has written some very modern spy thrillers in his time, with the likes of This Is Not A Game and its sequels, this should not prove surprising.)
But for all its brevity, Impersonations is also a novel of character: a novel in which Caroline Sula needs to decide who she is now that her war is over. The same person? Or someone new?
Everything dies, as she thinks to herself. Nothing matters.
But what matters to me? Impersonations is a pretty great book. Now that matters.