Several years ago, I read Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy, The Praxis (2002), The Sundering (2003), and Conventions of War (2005). Set in a rigid, hierarchy-bound society—the Praxis—the trilogy focused on young military officers Gareth Martinez and (Lady) Caroline Sula, whose unorthodox tactics contributed to the success of the military establishment over their enemy. But it won them powerful enemies on their own side. A further novella, Impersonations, focusing on Caroline Sula in a backwater posting after the war, came out in 2016, and led me to hope that Williams might continue telling stories in this universe.
This review contains some spoilers.
The Accidental War opens a new trilogy set in the Praxis. Seven years have passed since the Naxid War, and both Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula have been sidelined by a military establishment whose most senior officer hates them for their past unorthodox success. Martinez is accompanying his successful, employed wife to dinner parties and racing yachts from boredom; Caro Sula has been pursuing a secret vendetta against the people who kept trying to have her assassinated and worrying that her most foundational secret—the secret that she’s not actually Caroline the Lady Sula, heir to an old, albeit disgraced, aristocratic lineage, at all, but instead is a child of poverty who successfully slid into Sula’s shoes when the original helpfully died—may somehow yet come out and condemn her to death. But Sula, too, is deprived of the active naval career to which her talents are very well suited, and she too is bored.
For much of its length, The Accidental War feels more like a fantasy of manners—science fiction Regency-style—than the military space opera that I remember from Dread Empire’s Fall. Events move with measured inevitability. Tension lies more in social invitations and sporting events, in who goes where and who knows what when than in action and shooting. But this slow build is entirely worthwhile.
When Sula finagles her way into taking a seat in the large ruling assembly of the empire (after all, she needs something with which to occupy her time), she finds herself on the committee that deals with economic and financial matters, and starts asking hard questions about economic dealings. Martinez’s family, meanwhile, is at the centre of a mercantile and financial explosion in trade and dealings in financial instruments, and although none of them are involved in any corrupt dealings, their rapid ascent to vast amounts of wealth, and peripheral involvement with people who are involved in shady business, makes them a viable scapegoat when the market starts to crash. Many of the other races of the Praxis turn against humans as intentionally undermining the Praxis’s cohesion, and civil war becomes inevitable when it becomes clear that the senior elements of the Fleet mean to arrest all serving human personnel—essentially purging the Fleet’s ranks of anyone with the military power to prevent a mass slaughter of humans.
Gareth Martinez and Caroline Sula each in their own ways have prepared for this event. As have others in the Fleet. Martinez and Sula must escape and prepare to fight a war against a superior force. Despite its measured pace, The Accidental War makes for tense, compelling reading.
This is a fascinating novel about how a financial disaster drives a society to chaos and civil war. In the absence of the Praxis’s former rulers (the now-dead Shaa conquerors), the Praxis’s institutions (intended as advisory), can’t cope with the demands of decision-making on their own. The disaster is slow-moving and, once it gets started, almost impossible to stop: in their separate ways, both Sula and Martinez’s best intentions only make things worse because of the extent of the problem.
Sula, at least, saw the failure of the Praxis’s institutions coming, if not the specific ways it would fail. Though she believed the war would come sooner.
Sula and Gareth are fascinating characters, in part because of the depth of their history. Though they do not interact much in The Accidental War, the shadow that each of them casts of the other is long. They were friends, and romantically interested in each other before Gareth’s arranged marriage to a daughter of one of the oldest aristocratic human houses; Gareth remains somewhat in love with Sula even still. Sula, on the other hand, feels rather bitter and sees Gareth as a professional rival, though she doesn’t dwell much on the resentment she feels for his personal and professional choices.
Williams is consummate writer. His worldbuilding continues excellent, his characterisation is solid and believable, and his attention to detail while juggling a complex story of intrigue and financial disaster is deeply, impressive. Well-paced, tense, and deeply compelling, The Accidental War is a very entertaining work. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Though I do really hope that the next book will have a little more space in its opera.
The Accidental War is available from Harper Voyager.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.