Space opera is not always grimdark, indeed it often verges on the utopian but as it’s title suggests, Embers of War deals with the messy aftermath of conflict and it’s universe has lots of moral greyness to spare. Indeed, for much of the book it feels like a military science fiction novel before it broadens into space opera.
Embers of War starts with the human portion of the galaxy recovering from the aftermath of a bitter civil war that reminds me a lot of the background conflict to Firefly/Serenity with an independent minded faction (the Outward) losing to the central powers.
That war ended in an atrocity and resulted in combatants of both sides setting down their arms. This includes our main characters, Captain Sal Konstanz and her ship, the decommissioned and repentant sentient warship, Trouble Dog, who now work for the House of Reclamation – who are sort of an ad hoc International Rescue in this universe.
Elsewhere in the Embers of War universe, a cruise liner is attacked while viewing a system scale archaeological curiosity and a jaded spy is given a strange new posting.
Embers of War is bursting with interesting characters and settings. Sal Konstanz nurtures self doubt and loss by getting drunk in the hold of the ship. Her mismatched crew of veteran soldier Alva Clay and a box fresh medic rub up against each other in all the wrong ways while the most interesting characters are possibly the ship itself and the alien Druff engineer, Nod.
Elsewhere, Ona Sudak and Ashton Childe are shown to be deeply grey characters, both with secrets that remain untold and motivations that are both complex and opaque.
One of Powell’s great strengths is the description of the outlandish, with the realisation of the many many limbed, faces-on-the-hands Druff and the characters of the sentient spaceships standing. Otherwise, the vivid portrayal of such mind boggling things as the hypervoid and the Gallery which are both key to Embers of War’s plot really help to put you in a place which is almost past description.
The action is portrayed via a close third person view of specific PoV characters for each chapter and while some of the voices are samey, the distinct perspective given really helps in portraying different views of similar events. It is a device that takes a little tuning into and Embers of War is a book that takes a good few chapters to hit its stride.
Much of the story takes place with most of the characters not entirely sure why events are unfolding and there is a sense of the story being railroaded rather than each character having full agency to make their own decisions. This makes sense in some cases more than others – (especially for Sudak who is pursued deeper into an ancient alien megastructure) but it does lead to an excellent confrontation at the end which is resolved in a manner which is both a wee bit anticlimactic (as these things tend to be) and completely changes the scale of the story for the rest of the series.
The conclusion involves a number of tough moral choices and the Trouble Dog being a complete badass, despite being largely demilitarised. I’ve not liked a ship this much since Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints in Iain M. Banks Surface Detail.
All in all, Embers of War is a rip roaring space opera that cherry picks some of the most fun elements from the likes of Firefly and Iain M. Banks. While it doesn’t quite hit the heights of Banks or Ann Leckie, it’s very readable and you end up caring about the characters, feeling their moral quandaries and being invested in what happens to them.
Read Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell