Many of the books that have given me the most pleasure this year have been in the genre of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy. Before 2021 is out, I will write a blog about some of my favourites. However, a series of books deserves a blog all to itself. Embers of War is a space-opera trilogy from British author Gareth L. Powell. Last year I read books one to eight of James S.A. Corey’s magnifent Expanse series. It was at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and I had little to do but withdraw from society as much as I could and read. (I binged the Netflix series Dark in and around the same time, so my mind was on worlds definitely unlike our own. I felt all the better for it.) With not long before final book in the Expanse due out (spoiler: Leviathan Falls is out now), I felt the need to delve into another interstellar world. Gareth L. Powell has always been on my radar, so I thought it was the perfect time to read his trilogy. And boy was I glad I did.
Powell’s trilogy begins with the eponymous novel Embers of War, first published in 2018. It follows for the most part the trials and tribulations of the crew of Trouble Dog, a sentient star ship that was once one of the most fierce and feared of a cohort of highly weaponized battleships whose actions against Pelpatarn, a planet covered by a sentient forest, led to the end of a war that devastated the Generality, the government that oversaw the galaxy. This action, a genocide in plain terms, led to a crisis of conscience for Trouble Dog, and the AI allowed herself to be decommissioned and disarmed. Rather than lie in stasis, she became part of the House of Reclamation, an apolitical organisation that foreswore citizenship in order to answer calls of distress across the galaxy and rescue crews stranded or in danger of losing their lives. Captained by Sally (Sal) Konstanz, a woman with her own past and demons she struggles to come to terms with, Trouble Dog set out to rescue the crew and passengers of the Geest of Amsterdam, a luxury cruiser that appears to have been shot down by forces unknown.
Within the Generality, there is the Conglomerate and the Outward. It was the war between them that recently ended with the destruction of Pelpatarn. Spies Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka are on either side of the political divide but together they need to find a way to get on board Trouble Dog and join the rescue mission. An apparent VIP was on board the stricken ship when it went down, the war poet Ona Sudak, and it’s imperative her whereabouts is discovered. Sudak is not who she appears to be, though. Embers of War is an intriguing and exciting beginning to the trilogy. Along the way Powell introduces us to a number of complex and exotic characters, most notably Konstanz’ right hand woman, Alva Clay: their relationship is one based on trust and enmity. There is also Nod, a Druff, a multi-limbed and many-faced alien who’s the ship’s mechanic. Over the course of the three books, this endearing creature becomes important to the overall arc. By the end of the first book, the galaxy has changed and a new military might, gone for millenia, has entered the fray. They are the Fleet of Knives and it is their presence that forms the basis for book two.
An uneasy truce has overtaken the Generality but when Ona Sudak is violently sprung from the prison where she awaits her sentence of death, this fragile peace is shattered when the Fleet of Knives launch and all-out attack on the Generality’s armed forces. New characters like Johnny Schultz, captain of the salvage ship Lucy’s Ghost, come into the narrative. He and his crew are navigating through higher dimension space, on the way to salvage an old generation ship called The Restless Itch for Foreign Soil which has been travelling the system for long, long time, it’s crew long dead because of an onboard rebellion. Johnny thinks the ship is fair game for salvage regardless of political insensibilities. On the way there Lucy’s Ghost is attacked and destroyed by a creature from the void. They barely escape with their lives and find themselves inside The Restless Itch. But they are not alone. Meanwhile a galactic war is kicking off once more. Powell leaves just enough breadcrumbs in his story, while still upping the stakes overall. The battle scenes are literally life or death, and there’s plenty of the latter, even some of the crew we’ve grown close to don’t all make it.
The final book, Light of Impossible Stars is the brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. Without wanting to give too much away, we meet Cordelia Pa, a citizen of the Plate, a system of odd-shaped planets that sit near the Intrusion, a portal to a new dimension, a wormhole. She escapes her home Plate on the Gigolo Aunt, ostensibly to meet her estranged father, who has a mission in mind for his daughter. In the Generality, the Fleet of Knives have laid waste to much of the galaxy, but Reclamation Vessel Trouble Dog with her much changed crew and AI brother Adalwolf by her side still have a job to do. The creatures from within the void of higher dimensional space are lurching in the Intrusion, ready to attack all living creatures in the Generality. Konstanz must find a way to pressure the Fleet of Knives into joining forces with her and push the Scourers back. This is a tremendously exciting and fitting conclusion to the Embers of War trilogy. It has surprises and twists by the bucketload. If James S.A. Corey manage to end the Expanse in a similar fashion (and I suspect they will), I will be a very happy reader. Hats off to Gareth L. Powell for pulling out all the stops with his trilogy. I eagerly anticipate reading his new book, Stars and Bones, due out next year. I will review this before publication. It’s a great time to be a fan of space opera and science fiction.