Book Review: Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Embers of War
Publisher: Titan (February 20, 2018)
Length: 411 pages
Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell is a sci-fi military space opera that has been on my radar ever since it was released last year, but it wasn’t until news of the sequel arrived that I was finally spurred to pick it up. And now that I’ve finished it, I’m kicking myself wondering why it took me so long. This novel has everything I wanted out of the genre and more, and I had a lot of fun reading it.
Following a handful of different characters, the story is set in the aftermath of a bitter and violent war fought in a galaxy rife with political tensions. Disgusted with the part she played, the sentient warship Trouble Dog has decided on a new course for her life, joining the House of Reclamation, an organization that answers the calls of distressed starships, in the hopes of atoning for the atrocities she committed. Sal Konstanz, who once fought against Trouble Dog, now finds herself on the same side as the ship as her captain. Together with their crew of medics and rescue workers, they follow a signal from a downed vessel to a touristy but disputed area of space called the Gallery, a system whose planets have all been carved into gargantuan intricate shapes by an ancient alien race.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the system is another example of former enemies now working together as allies. Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka, agents from opposing sides team up to locate a missing poet who was rumored to have been on the ship that went down in the Gallery. And indeed, the missing woman in question is Ona Sudak, whose relaxing pleasure cruise with her travel companion has turned into a nightmare after the attack on her ship leaves them marooned on a strange planet surrounded by all kinds of mysterious threats.
Out of all the characters though, the one I was most looking forward to going into the book—and whose point-of-view turned out to be my favorite—was Trouble Dog. The idea of sentient starships is becoming more and more popular in science fiction, a trend I’m enjoying very much, and Powell’s take is both interesting and inventive. While the concept of a living ship made up of both organic and machine parts is nothing new, Trouble Dog gets her own chapters written in the first person, allowing readers an intimate look into the way she thinks and feels. Although warship class vessels should be unaffected by emotion, the better to do their job, that clearly didn’t turn out to be the case for Trouble Dog who struggles with her fair share of hang-ups as well as memories she’d much rather forget. For a ship character to feel even more “human” than some of her actual human co-stars in a book is no small achievement, and I applaud the author’s skill in pulling this off, though I’m also pleased that he allowed Trouble Dog to retain many of her A.I. traits, resulting in a perspective that it is truly memorable and unique.
And while we only get to visit a relatively small slice of this universe—mainly the Gallery, where most of the book’s action takes place—I’m already in love with the setting. Everything I find irresistible about the space in science fiction is embodied in the mystery and majesty of this system, where entire planets are sculpted into works of art by some unknown civilization many eons ago, using advanced technology we can only dream of. The effect is both inspiring and a little eerie, but I’m intrigued and excited to explore further.
In terms of the story, I’m pleased with how all the different threads came together. However, as much as I enjoy space operas featuring ensemble crews, most novels told via multiple perspectives inevitably lead to some character arcs being more compelling than others. This is what I found with Embers of War, which saw Trouble Dog and Sal Konstanz emerging as my clear favorites almost as soon as the book began. Namely, this was because a character was only as interesting as their interactions with other characters, with the ship and her captain’s dynamic being the best example of a relationship that immediately stood out. Other perspectives like Ashton Child or Nod, the ship’s no-nonsense engineer, were not as appealing, though I understood their need to show another side of the story or flesh out the world-building. In addition, there were plenty of secrets beneath the surface as well as a number of interconnected events whose links aren’t revealed until later, which made discovering them one of the highlights of the novel’s climax and concluding chapters.
All in all, Embers of War was a great read that ticked off the boxes when it comes to what I look for in a military sci-fi or space opera. On top of that, I thought it laid out the groundwork for the sequel quite nicely, and I am beyond excited to jump into the next book Fleet of Knives where I hope Gareth L. Powell will continue to develop the series’ fascinating concepts and themes.