Embers of War: the start of an epic space opera

Banner: Space opera Sunday (base image - Space by Codex41 @flickr)

Book cover: Embers of War - Gareth L Powell a spaceship flying away from a reddish planetThe last war ended in an atrocity. The Trouble Dog resigned her post afterwards, seeking redemption in salvage. Now she’s the closest craft to a civilian distress call, summoned to the carven worlds of the Gallery with a mess of former enemies aboard. Has anybody put the war behind them?

You know I like a good space opera, and Embers of War ticked all the boxes for me. Yes, this is going to be one of those no-suspense reviews: no messing about with whether I liked it – just how much. Rather a lot (yes, that’s English understatement).

The book opens at a pivotal moment in a war. The greater forces of the Conglomeration (one of my few criticisms is that the political entities all sound like placeholder synonyms for Federation <gazes to camera> that got left in, which makes them forgettable and sounds a bit silly) are converging on a planet where their opposition’s leaders (see, I’ve forgotten what that political entity was called. The Multiplicity? The Generality?) are gathered for a conference. One tactical strike, and they can be wiped out and the war brought to a more or less immediate end.

Unfortunately, there are just enough defensive craft in orbit to make this challenging. So the Conglomeration decide to commit genocide instead.


“It’ll save lives, honestly” is a terrible argument and it’s a non-starter when it involves razing a sentient forest planet (no cat people, though). However, the military commander dutifully relays the orders to her handiest attack craft – a pack of elite Carnivore class ships (HELL YES for class names that tell you a lot about the craft in question)… and the planet is burnt to a crisp.

It ends the war. Job done.

This is properly horrifying, but thankfully Embers of War is all about exploring consequences. The Trouble Dog resigns in shame over her part in the affair, leaving her pack to join the House of Reclamation and devote her future to rescuing ships in trouble. The Conglomeration commander is publicly vilified and goes into hiding.

Years later, the Trouble Dog – alienated from her pack, who can’t understand her issues – sails under a captain who was once an enemy, her tiny crew of misfits (YAY) deliberately choosing cabins as far as they can get from one another. There’s no personal animosity. Each just has a corridor full of ghosts to keep them company.

They don’t talk about the past …but it’s about to come back to haunt them.

I adore stories about sentient ships. I have a huge soft spot for stories about salvage crews. And anybody who can paint a setting as big and bold as the excesses of the Culture will have a little piece of my heart forever. Gareth L Powell has created a galaxy peopled with many races and cultures and imbued with a sense of history in which humanity is only a very recent participant. We only ever – at best – scratch the surface of the world-building. But that surface…

Yes, I’m talking about the Gallery: a system of planets carved into works of arts by some long-lost civilisation. It’s mysterious, it’s gorgeous, and it’s pretty near irresistible popping by for a goggle if you’re a cruise liner passing through the neighbourhood, even if it’s disputed territory. It’ll be the experience of a lifetime. What can go wrong?

The Trouble Dog is the closest craft when the liner sends out her distress call. Captain Sal Konstanz is determined to try and make up for a disastrous failed rescue mission. When a resupply stop on a war-torn planet lands her with 2 more crew (the sort of enemy spies who can share a cautiously friendly gin and comment on how shit backwater stations can be), we’ve got a band of underdogs who will stop at nothing to retrieve their reputations by saving lives.

It might even work out if they weren’t about to face the most dangerous craft in the galaxy. Or if the Dog hadn’t been fully disarmed when she joined the House of Reclamation. Or if there weren’t a third party in play that none of them are in any position to second-guess, but who has strong opinions on ethics (although how this played out – the distinction between ethics, justice, and judgement – was very satisfying).

Embers of War takes a little while to set out its stage, but once it has its pieces in play the tensions escalate almost as dramatically as the scenery (…did I mention the Gallery? THE VISUALS, PEOPLE. MY HEAD IS FULL OF AMAZING IMAGES. CREEPY, UNFORGETTABLE IMAGES. I WANT TO GO TO THE GALLERY)

The whole book is narrated in first person across multiple POVs, which I initially found a little jarring, but came to appreciate because each character has such a distinct voice. I didn’t necessarily like all the characters (I hated Ona Sudak from the start. She’s arrogant as well as pretentious, but her story is compelling), but I quickly became fond of Konstanz and I adored the grumpy, too-old-and-disarmed-for-your-shit Trouble Dog and the way she alternated between cool, competent efficiency and disgruntled impatience with her humans.

The actiontastic final act held enough surprises to keep me delighted. I’m a sucker for a good bit of narrative pay-off, and Powell neatly brings pretty much everything into play for his big finale – whilst making it clear this is a beginning. There’s a promise of broader canvases, more aliens and a glimpse beyond the warring human factions out across the bigger galaxy.

And in the end, a well-written book about a sentient spaceship with regrets and a bad attitude is high on the list of things likely to make me squee and flail.

Job done.

When’s the next one coming out?


I received a free copy from the  publisher in exchange for an honest review.