Embers of War by Gareth L Powell

Subjective Chaos – Science Fiction Novel

Publisher - Titan

Published - Out Now

Price - £7.99 paperback £4.99 eBook

The sentient warship Trouble Dog was built for violence yet following a brutal war she is disgusted by her role in the genocide. Stripped of her weaponry and seeking to atone, she joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress. When a civilian ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of loners, captained by Sal Konstanz, are sent on a rescue mission.

Meanwhile, light years away, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is tasked with locating the poet, Ona Sudak, who was aboard the missing spaceship. What Childe doesn’t know is that Sudak is not the person she appears to be.  A straightforward rescue turns into something far more dangerous, as Trouble Dog, Konstanz and Childe find themselves at the centre of the conflict that could engulf the entire galaxy. If she is to save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight…

One theme that always grabs my attention is redemption.  A person who has made a horrible mistake and wants to work to atone for their sins is for me an instant grabby hands story. In an age where some tales within the genre believe what ever you need to do to win is the key, I’m always going to prefer someone who realises they did wrong and wants to learn from their mistakes. For me this is a great way to examine the angel and the devil within every human being and our capacity for forgiveness. Gareth L Powell gives us a refreshing take on this with a tale of four beings all looking back at their lives and what the consequences are going to be. And while this looks at humanity, he brings it onto the space opera stage heralding a new trilogy.

We start the story with a galactic war ending with an atrocity – the bombing of a immensely old sentient forest and all the thousands of soldiers fighting within it; an act so brutal that the war between two immense galactic powers swiftly ended with most players in shock that someone actually decided this was the only way to resolve matters. The consequences for the sentient warship Trouble Dog was that it decided it could no longer go into battle and decided to join the independent distress aid group known as the House of Reclamation (imagine using the Ark Royal as the local lifeboat service). Her Captain Sal Konstanz fought on the other side but also found the war gruelling and we first meet these two in an difficult rescue mission where Konstanz makes a horrible error of judgement on that risks her career; before she can be sacked she is given an urgent last mission to find a missing liner that went off the grid in an area of space known as The Gallery were an ancient civilisation carved planets into shapes such as a huge brain. Someone thing is not adding up and Trouble Dog herself is getting mysterious warning to stay away.

I really enjoyed the approach Powell took with this novel. We see the book from six points of view – Trouble Dog (who has an intriguing morality delighting in violence and strategy yet keen to preserve the lives of the innocent) Konstanz, Nod; who is a non-human engineer named Nod and a spy named Childe who himself is running from horrors but given the mission to find the final main character Ona Sudak who is trying to live within the wreckage of the missing liner and finds her ship’s attackers have decided no one is to escape this disaster.   It creates a series of mysteries ranging from the personal to the galactic scale that the reader must disentangle and try to solve. For me the main characters all have that interesting attitude to redemption – if you do someone thing truly awful can you make your way back from it?  Do you just keep running, repress it or decide you must do better? Pleasingly none of these characters (even the almighty warship)  are seen as super-human they are refreshingly flawed  - this is not the best little crew in the galaxy this is a group that has largely been side-lined by their superiors be they human or their warship AI family – what they instead have going for them however is a desire to move on to some extent. This gave me those precious characters to root for and hope they overcome the better armed and more powerful opposition.  Told you this is my weakness!!

At the same time there is a wider story being told in this novel as they mysteries of The Gallery and its creators are slowly revealed.  Our small crew have unwittingly entered one of the most important parts of the universe and that has consequences for everyone.  Powell has a great eye for the personal as well as the giant scale be it a barfight to two superpowered warships fighting both in space and their inner Mindscapes. It’s a really well paced tale and the desire to work out how all these strands are really connected for me was a major pull in reading most of this novel in one go.

I think certainly a novel that fans of the Expanse series and other space operas would enjoy, and I’m intrigued how the wider arc will be developed (which is good as I have the sequel Fleet of Knives to now read!). From a Subjective Chaos nominee point of view I think this sits within the nominee group well – it takes a classic idea (the ancient civilisation leaving a mystery to solve) and for me adds a tasty emotional battle that equals the action packed sequences that also fill the novel plus Trouble Dog turns out to be a fascinating ship Mind in her own right as she figures out her own place in the universe. Strongly recommended!