Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell (Titan 978-1785655180, $14.95, 412pp, pb) February 2018.
While there are novels that unapologetically defy categorisation to a single subgenre, Embers of War is very definitely space opera – one might even say defiantly so. Gareth L. Powell’s previously best-known novel (Ack-Ack Macaque, joint winner of the 2013 BSFA Best Novel Award) isn’t the kind of work that would appear to lead into a seamless trajectory towards space opera – though you might question my opinion, since I misjudged it based on its cover for years. But space opera is what Embers of War is, and it comes with laudatory blurbs from Ann Leckie and Adrian Tchaikovsky, both of whom won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction. So does it live up to its praise?
The answer to that question is both yes and no.
Embers of War takes place in a space opera setting in which humans have expanded into a galaxy that contains more intelligent life than merely humans, but where the major conflicts that we see are between different human polities. It opens in the closing stages of a war that ends in genocide, and resumes, after its prologue, a few years into the aftermath: peace rules, but it’s an uneasy one, and many people are still dealing with the consequences of their war.
Trouble Dog is a sentient spaceship. A warship created for violence and battle, she was nonetheless disgusted by her role in the end of the war, and resigned her commission to join the House of Reclamation. The House of Reclamation is an organisation that performs search and rescue for ships missing or in distress, founded by a human following a model pioneered by a long-since disappeared alien species. Trouble Dog’s House of Reclamation captain is Sal Konstanz – a woman with few ties outside her job and few social connections within it, but who has a commitment to the goals of the House of Reclamation in the absence of other ties – and they work moderately well together. When a civilian ship goes missing in disputed territory, Trouble Dog, with Konstanz and her tiny crew, find themselves the closest vessel able to carry out a rescue mission.
Ona Sudak is one of the passengers on that civilian ship. A poet who came to prominence in the immediate aftermath of the war, when her words spoke to many, she also hides a secret. And when her passenger ship is attacked and most of its crew and passengers murdered, she survives in the canyons and tunnels of the artificial space object that her ship had diverted to. There, she discovers hidden secrets – but Sudak is the target of the attack on her ship, and her pursuers won’t rest until they know she’s dead.
Ashton Childe is an intelligence officer on a backwater planet, where his only social outlet (and dubious friend) is the intelligence officer from a rival power. He’s not very good at his job – nor does he enjoy it much – but he’s the closest intelligence officer when Sudak’s ship goes missing. His superiors send him to look for her, not telling him why – and he asks his friend/enemy, the other intelligence officer, to come with him. Childe doesn’t know how much trouble he’s about to walk into on what should be a simple rescue mission.
But then, neither do Konstanz and Trouble Dog, with whom Childe manages to hitch a lift.
Trouble Dog, Konstanz, Sudak, and Childe are Embers of War’s main characters. The narrative switches between their perspectives in alternating chapters. With the exception of the prologue, the entire novel is written in a first-person voice, and this makes the switches between viewpoints occasionally jarring, especially as, apart from Trouble Dog and Sudak, the characters feel a little slight, a little underdeveloped: Konstanz has very little personality, and neither does Childe – apart from being something of an ass. But together this motley group uncover something vast and strange, an alien mystery in the heart of an ancient artificial space object. Though it becomes increasingly uncertain whether any of them will survive, as they find themselves at the centre of a conflict that could restart the late war – or worse, ignite an even larger conflict.
Embers of War is well paced, and Powell is at his best here when describing weird alien mysteries and the ethics and personalities of sentient ships – not quite human, not quite AIs – designed for war. But the Big Incomprehensible Object plotline is poorly wedded to the human concerns of who Sudak is and why people want to kill her, and why Trouble Dog, et al. should have an emotional stake in the outcome. This would be of less significance had the characters been more fully fleshed out and compelling as individuals, but as it stands, the novel’s climax and conclusion feels oddly off-kilter.
That said, Embers of War is an entertaining, readable novel. A sequel is expected early next year, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.
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, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the May 2018 issue of Locus.
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