Typically space opera isn’t wheelhouse reading for me, but when Walter Jon Williams is involved, I’m always game. Impersonations (2016) is a standalone sequel to the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy of the early 2000s, and it’s an intriguing, fast-paced follow-up.
The original trilogy depicted a future interstellar empire composed of multiple species, conquered by a powerful alien race called the Shaa, who ruled their domain by a stringent set of guidelines known as the Praxis. The death of the last living Shaa led to civil war when a race called the Naxids attempted to fill the power void. Carolina Sula is a hero of the war whose command helped quash the Naxid rebellion. The only problem: she won the war through her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, rather than following the script of her stodgy higher-ups. As Impersonations begins, Sula has been “rewarded” for her success with a backwater command, running the shipyards of a now-insignificant planet called Earth. Fortunately, Sula is a history buff, and looks to make the best of her situation by delving into the ruins of humanity’s past. But her quiet posting is jeopardized when an old friend turns up whose presence could expose the darkest secrets of her checkered past. And this is just the first complication in a slowly escalating intrigue that ultimately proves explosive.
I loved the Dread Empire’s Fall series, and I suspect fans of the original trilogy will relish this return to its universe, even though the space opera trappings are scaled back slightly to focus on one familiar and yet strikingly different planet. While prior knowledge surely enhances the enjoyment, the story does stand alone, and the worldbuilding delivers a timely focus on alternative governance, which resonates interestingly in light of current events. Sula is a compelling and capable protagonist, and while the plot starts quietly, it builds nicely toward an exciting home stretch that delivers satisfying reveals that could point toward further adventures in the series. A bracing science fictional thriller.