Embers of War

by Gareth L. Powell

Cover image

Series: Embers of War #1
Publisher: Titan Books
Copyright: February 2018
ISBN: 1-78565-519-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 312

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The military leadership of the Outward faction of humanity was meeting on the forest world of Pelapatarn, creating an opportunity for the Conglomeration to win the war at a stroke. Resistance was supposed to be minimal, since the Outward had attempted to keep the conference secret rather than massing forces to protect it. But the Outward resistance was stronger than expected, and Captain Deal's forces would not be able to locate and assassinate the Outward leadership before they could escape. She therefore followed orders from above her and ordered the four incoming Carnivore heavy cruisers to jump past the space battle and bomb the planet. The entire planet.

The Carnivores' nuclear and antimatter weaponry reduced the billion-year-old sentient jungle of Pelapatarn to ash.

Three years later, Sal Konstanz is a ship captain for the House of Reclamation, a strictly neutral search and rescue force modeled after a long-vanished alien fleet that prioritizes preservation of life above all else. Anyone can join Reclamation, provided that they renounce their previous alliances and devote themselves to the Reclamation cause. Sal and her crew member Alva Clay were Outward. The ship medic was Conglomeration. So was the ship: the Trouble Dog, a sentient AI heavy cruiser built to carry an arsenal of weapons and three hundred crew, and now carrying three humans and a Druff mechanic. More precisely, the Trouble Dog was one of the four Carnivores that destroyed Pelapatarn.

Meanwhile, Ona Sudak, a popular war poet, is a passenger on a luxury cruise on the liner Geest van Amsterdam, which is making an unscheduled stop in the star system known as the Gallery. The Gallery is the home of the Objects: seven planets that, ten thousand years earlier, were carved by unknown aliens into immense sculptures for unknown reasons. The Objects appear to be both harmless and mysterious, making them an irresistible tourist attraction for the liner passengers. The Gallery is in disputed space, but no one was expecting serious trouble. They certainly weren't expecting the Geest van Amsterdam to be attacked and brought down on the Object known as the Brain, killing nearly everyone aboard. The Trouble Dog is the closest rescue ship.

This book was... fine. It's a perfectly serviceable science fiction novel that didn't stand out for me, which I think says more about the current excellent state of the science fiction field than about this book. When I was a teenager reading Asimov, Niven, and Heinlein, I would have devoured this. It compares favorably to minor Niven or Heinlein (The Integral Trees, for example, or Double Star), but the bar for excellent science fiction is just so much higher now.

The best character in this book (and the reason why I read it) is the Trouble Dog. I love science fiction about intelligent space ships, and she did not disappoint. The AI ships in this book are partly made from human and dog neurons, so their viewpoint is mostly human but with some interesting minor variations. And the Trouble Dog would be a great character even if she weren't an intelligent ship: ethical, aggressive, daring, and introspective, with a nuanced relationship with her human crew.

Unfortunately, Embers of War has four other viewpoint characters, and Powell chose to write them all in the first person. First person narration depends heavily on a memorable and interesting character because the reader is so thoroughly within their perspective. This works great for the Trouble Dog, and is fine for Nod, the Druff who serves as the ship mechanic. (Nod's perspective is intriguing, short, almost free-verse musings, rather than major story segments.) Sal, the ship captain, is a bit of a default character, but I didn't mind her much. Neither of the other two viewpoint characters are interesting enough to warrant the narrative attention. The Conglomerate agent Ashton Childe has such an uninteresting internal monologue that I would have liked the character better if he'd only been seen through other people's viewpoints, and although Powell needs some way to show Ona Sudak's view of events, I didn't think her thoughts added much to the story.

The writing is adequate but a bit clunky: slightly flat descriptions, a bit too predictable at the sentence level, and rarely that memorable. There is a bit of fun world-building of the ancient artifact variety and a couple of decent set pieces (and one rather-too-obvious Matrix homage that I didn't think was as effective as the author did), but most of the story is focused on characters navigating their lives and processing trauma from the war. The story kept me turning the pages with interest, but I also doubt it will surprise anyone who has read much science fiction. I suspect a lot of it is setup for the following two books of the trilogy, and there are plenty of hooks for more stories in this universe.

I really wanted a first-person story from the perspective of the Trouble Dog, possibly with some tight third-person interludes showing Ona Sudak's story. What I got instead was entertaining but not memorable enough to stand out in the current rich state of science fiction. I think I'm invested enough in this story to want to read the next book, though, so that's still a recommendation of sorts.

Followed by Fleet of Knives.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-02-06

Last modified and spun 2022-02-07