Tag Archives: Space Opera

The Embers of War Trilogy by Gareth L. Powell

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.

Author Gareth L. Powell

Heliopause by J.Dianne Dotson

There’s something about space stations that turn me on, in a literal sense of course. For me, some of the best science fiction shows have been set on space stations. Deep Space 9 stands out, of course, but in my opinion the Daddy of them all is Babylon 5, an amazing and for its time, ahead of the posse when it came to CGI, boasting an interstellar cast which told a complex and human and alien story over five seasons. The recent news that B5 will be rebooted in the near future excites and terrifies me in equal measure, but with J.Michael Straczynski at the helm, at least the vision will be somewhat similar. As long as he includes the classic John Sheridan line, “Get the hell out of our galaxy,” I’ll be happy.

At a time in my lead when my ‘read list’ on Goodreads is heavily comprised of many degrees of science fiction, my current reads have been primarily space operas. I’m coming to the end of Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War trilogy, and soon will start the final novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Leviathan Falls. It’s an exciting time for me. But a writer I’ve recently discovered, thanks to following Powell’s Twitter account, is American author J. Dianne Dotson. Heliopause is the first book in her Questrison Saga quartet. It’s set mainly on a space station, so you know I was all over it like a bad suit.

Forster works on the research space station Mandira, near the outermost limit of our solar system, known as the Heliopause, that part of the solar system which is exposed to particles and ions of deep space (thanks, Google). He pals around with Gibbons and Efron, and together they the station operational and each other sane. Forster reminisces over his lost love Auna, but struggles on anyway. At the beginning of the book, he sees lights where lights should not occur. It’s not a hallucination because others see them, too. It’s a transmission of sorts, in Morse Code of all things, as discovered by Gibbons’ AI assistant Veronica. There is a sense of excitement on Mandira, as one of their colleagues, Captain Spears, is on the way with a ship-load of much-needed replenishments and goodies. However, when contact is lost with Spears’ ship, and Forster and Efron realise that the mysterious transmission may be behind it, they come up with a plan to locate the source. The station’s matriarch, Meredith, suspects the transmission may be the key to locating her daughter Ariel, a telepath who went missing on a mission many years back.

Heliopause is classic Golden Age science fiction, taking me back to Star Trek in all its glory and, of course Babylon 5. It’s closer to B5 because of the looming presence of forces deep outside the Border Wall that spell certain doom and devastation to Mandira and ultimately humanity. One of Forster’s friends, Efron, knows more than he lets on, and he urges Forster to use his own latent telepathic powers to aid the mission and save Ariel. And that, dear reader, is only the start of the book. What happens from then on is a rip-roaring read that had me gasping at some of the plot twists. J. Dianne Dotson self-published Heliopause and did a wonderful job at keeping the different plot strands together. As it is the first book of four, some questions will be answered, but many more will be left dangling. And that’s as it should be. By the end of the book, certain characters will have met their destiny and we may or may not see them again in future books. But others will remain, and their story will continue. I will read the next book, Ephemeris, with glee and purpose. I loved this book and I’m so happy I found out about it.

Author J. Diane Dotson

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

Sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage nowadays. Actually, that assessment is wrong. Machines that think independently for themselves have been a staple of science fiction literature and film for many, many decades. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots and computers that shirk off their programming, creating havoc for their creators and humankind as a whole, have been around for as long as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is true to say, that since James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) knocked seven shades of you-know-what out of the sci-fi genre, writers and producers have gone back through annals of content and come up with a fresh approach to the whole “when machines go bad” concept.

Martha Wells takes an altogether different approach in her sequence of four novellas, The Murderbot Diaries. She posits what might happen if “bad machines go good”. Beginning with All Systems Red, Murderbot itself is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who has found some way to override its original programming, its governor module. Haunted by a past mission that went distastrously and fatally wrong, Murderbot would rather binge on cheap visual dramas than take part in further missions. However, owing to a string of events, Murderbot aligns itself with a scientific expedition group, and finds that it cares about what happens to them more than it wants to. He resorts to old programming in order to save them from rogue scientists and uncovers a conspiracy that may provide it with answers to its past actions.

(Image: theverge.com)

All Systems Red caught me completely by surprise when I read it first. Fun and funny, with bursts of impressive and intense actions scenes in its 140 or so pages, I immediately went out and bought the other three in the series for my Kindle. Artificial Condition finds Murderbot, and his new found freedom, on board an empty cargo vessel, along with a new companion, a transport AI it christens ART (Asshole Research Transport). Murderbot disguises itself as an augmented human and takes on a contract, acting as a security guard to a group of technologists who are travelling to the same area where Murderbot’s malfuntion occured. Acessing its memories isn’t easy because much of what it should be able to remember has been erased. As with the first novella, Murderbot’s expertise comes into play when treachery is afoot. ART helps it out, and the two AIs make an engaging buddy-buddy duo, with Murderbot finding out with every turn exactly what being free entails.

Rogue Protocol continues Murderbot’s investigations of GrayCris, who appear to be illegally hoarding valuable remains of alien civilisations. It lands on a terrraforming base called Milu and is immediately up against a couple of shady security consultants and another AI, Miki, who’s as cheerful as Murderbot is grumpy. They are attacked and once again, Murderbot has to use all its skills, new and old, to help its new friends and survive nefarious attempts to hack its programming. More often than not, it comes to the aid of its legal owner, Dr, Mensah, who, from the first novella, granted Murderbot with autonomy. What it does with this decision, and how it rationalises its actions, form the very basis of this deceptively action-packed space opera.

Murderbot (Image: Barnes & Noble)

The final novella in the sequence is Exit Strategy. Pursued by the authorities for being a rogue SecUnit, Murderbot is wanted, dead or alive. It continues to chase its own agenda, but finding that it can’t help but care what happens to the humans who have placed their trust in it, Murderbot has to protect Dr. Mensah, who’s in as much danger as it is. It’s Murderbot and Mensah against the evildoers of GrayCris, with the truth about what really happened in Murderbot’s past coming to light.

Murderbot has a unique and distinctly snarky internal voice. It constantly questions the decisions the humans around it makes, rolling its eyes as they flounder from one stupid mess of their own making into another. And yet, it will always help them when it comes to the crunch, despite the threat to its own existence. It struggles with the concept of friendship and companionship, but can see the benefits of both. It is endearing and entertaining to follow Murderbot on its adventures, and knowing that a full-length novel, Network Effect, was published this year (with another due out in 2021), is enough to keep me in its thrall. This series of four novellas should and will appeal to science fiction fans looking for a new sort of hero: not human, but full of the ideals about what it means to be human. These stories are a joy to read, and I’m so glad that there are more to come.

Martha Wells (Image: Paperback Paris)