The Sort of Thing That It Is

by wjw on December 7, 2020


Fleet Elements releases on December 8, which is Wednesday!  Available in both trade paperback and ebook formats, please locate Fleet Elements at your favorite local bookstore (which deserves your support), and also at the Bigs:
Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Google Play, Kobo, Apple Books

Two long, thoughtful reviews have recently come to my attention, the first in Locus by the always thoughtful Russell Letson.

Two years ago, Walter Jon Williams returned to the setting and subgenre of his ingeniously unconventional Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy with the first of a set of sequels, The Accidental War (now branded A Novel of the Praxis). Though perhaps I should call the series ‘‘multi-conventional,’’ since, while the packaging and promotional language correctly signal ‘‘space opera’’ and ‘‘military SF,’’ the books also include strong elements of romance (if not romantic comedy), novel-of-manners, and even crime/intrigue-thriller.

The comparisons I settled on for the first three were to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin wooden-ship naval adventures and Jane Austen’s distinctly non-military novels of manners, money, and marriage. Those comparisons still apply, but in the new novel, Fleet Elements, the balance does shift a bit . . . 

Martinez and Sula have worked separately to great effect in the civil war and spectacularly well together as a team in warship operations, but their emotional relationship, kept unstable by their personalities and external social conditions, has been worse than rocky. Seven years after the end of the civil war, both are comfortable enough in their new lives, but the successor regime is not the old Praxis – it is simultaneously rigid and wobbly, riddled with corruption, inefficiency, cronyism, and general incompetence. When a financial crash leads to rabble-rousing and the scapegoating of all Terrans, a new civil war breaks out, and the sometime lovers are pushed back into close contact, with predictable results, given their emotional volatility . . . 

This volume is more ‘‘military’’ in the everyday-procedural sense than the others, and since Martinez and Sula are now persons of importance, with new ranks and responsibilities, their emotional roller-coaster continues its wild ride in the gaps between stiff official social events, staff meetings, planning sessions, personnel selection, warship refittings, and training maneuvers. That wildness, coupled with the sometime-lovers’ volatilities and baggage, takes the pair to some dangerous places – but the central story line is directed at the inevitable confrontation with the forces of the Praxis, and the climactic sequence (the longest chapter in the book) is a set-piece space-navy battle that is meant to end the standoff between the human and anti-human factions. Here is offered an accounting of decisions made, shots fired, fleet elements maneuvered, ships lost, and the anxiety of command as the results of those actions pile up.

I confess that I found this chapter less gripping than the scenes of social interaction – the tedious (to Martinez and Sula), obligatory meet-the staff dinner parties – or even the treatment of logistical operations in port . . . 

And, as the first trio of novels demonstrated, there is no guarantee of happily-ever-after when the curtain falls on the finale, which promises some grand and dangerous confrontations and revelations.

The second review was in Galaxy’s Edge.  I don’t know the name of the reviewer, but that person has my thanks.

Galactic empires come and go.  We’ve had so many of them.  All you have to do is scan the shelves of the local library or local bookstore.  Even when they are so splendidly rendered as what Williams has accomplished here (and elsewhere; he’s been doing this for a while now).  And even when he convincingly encapsulates the debates over the nature of empires, good and bad, in some fascinating dialogues provided by an extensive cast of characters.  

What we care about, and what keeps us going page after page, is our engagement with Martinez and Sula.  Their relationship is as rocky and perilous as all the nifty battles and fleets of lethal warships— and some nifty science, too . . . At the heat of many a good novel are the people, no matter the species,  whose journey these pages record.  It’s their story, even when we’re enchanted into images of action and energy rendered with the precision of an engineer’s schematic . . . 

[There follows an extract from the novel which I shall leave you to discover for yourself.]

Galactic empires come and go.  I may not care much about pistols or automatics or crazed bombers.  But a paragraph like that leaves one so breathlessly present in the immediate scene, it’s worth all the empires and their lords and ladies in a shelf’s worth of other space operas.

What both these reviews seem to tell me is that neither of these reviewers is all that interested in the sort of thing that Fleet Elements actually is (deconstructed space opera, far-future romance, MilSF, pick your subgenre, I don’t care).  But even though the subgenre itself doesn’t turn them on, they ended up liking the novel despite their predilections.

Which should tell you that even if you aren’t that interested in the sort of thing that this is, you’ll like it anyway.

And if you do like the sort of thing this is, then it’s all jam today and jam tomorrow, isn’t it?

And speaking of jam, the Transfer Orbit newsletter has named Fleet Elements one of the books to check out this month.

Bruce Arthurs December 7, 2020 at 11:20 pm

Got your newsletter earlier today reminding me the pub date for Fleet Elements was imminent.

[inner voice] “I pre-ordered this, didn’t I? I’m pretty sure I pre-ordered this. Maybe I should double-chec—”

[new email notification on phone] *ding*

It was from B&N, letting me know they’d shipped my pre-order for Fleet Elements.

wjw December 8, 2020 at 1:46 am

Great that B&N is working so efficiently. My author’s copy of the new HARDWIRED paperback arrived over a week before Amazon’s copy.

pixlaw December 8, 2020 at 8:56 am

My computer is claiming that today, Tuesday, is the 8th. I’m so fried I can’t tell what day or date it is, but I just bought the damn book. Looking forward to reading it.

Matte Lozenge December 8, 2020 at 10:28 am

Frankly, the Martinez-Sula relationship could stop immediately and I would happily continue reading every book you set in this universe. I keep reading for the characters, politics, battle strategies and battle action in all settings, sociocultural themes, and emotional relationships. In short, the Praxis books are a rich stew, and the presence or absence of any single ingredient doesn’t affect my enjoyment.

John Appel December 8, 2020 at 9:36 pm

Very eagerly awaiting my copy.

Clyde December 9, 2020 at 12:07 am

Whoot! It just auto-magically appeared in my Kindle.

Minx December 9, 2020 at 6:28 am

aaand bought!

i’ve been advertising the series on discord and will write a review on when i finished the book. which could take a moment since i’m a rather slow reader lol.

Russell Letson December 9, 2020 at 1:25 pm

As far as I can tell, what the book *is* is a WJW novel, which means that no matter how directly matters of “genre” are addressed, the rules and expectations of genre(s) are not constraints but sets of possibilities. This particular reviewer finds the ways that writers navigate and manipulate reader expectations (which is one way of talking about “genre”) endlessly interesting. That’s why I keep pointing at Patrick O’Brian in my reviews of these books (and of Cherryh’s Foreigner sequence).

At the risk of seeming to build a value hierarchy, I would say that books that combine genre elements into increasingly complex structures are more “novelistic” and less genre-bound. Last month, I re-re-read Lord of the Rings and was struck by how inadequate labels such as “high fantasy” or “epic fantasy” are for what the book takes on.

Russell Letson December 9, 2020 at 5:10 pm

BTW, thanks for “always thoughtful.” I usually just think of myself as fussy. And over deadline.

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