Ticking all the right boxes: A review of Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War

Gautham Shenoy June 23, 2018

It presumably happens to every reader who loves a particular genre or sub-genre. As you get deeper and deeper into it, as it keeps pace with changing times, you find it taking itself a little too seriously, trying to be ‘contemporary’ with the markers of the genre relegated to being mere formalities or existing just in the background. And you wonder: Where is that sense of wonder, that fun, those tales which made me fall in love with these kinds of stories in the first place? And just at that time, along comes a book that makes you fall in love with that genre all over again. I am, in this case speaking of ‘space opera’, a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by intergalactic adventures, starships and space battles and a whole of adventure and intrigue. And the book I’m referring to specifically is Gareth L. Powell’s Embers of War, a book that ticks all the right boxes if you are looking for a fun, engaging, gripping read that’s classic space opera and contemporary science fiction all at once.

The setting is the very far future, and humanity is now part of the intergalactic community called the Multiplicity. But humans will be people. So you have two factions of humanity have been at war with each other in a bloody conflict fought at planetary scales – The Outward Faction and The Conglomeration. One open to alien ideas, new philosophies and gods, believing in universal healthcare and common ownership of resources and infrastructure. The other unable to let go of the traditions of Old Earth, believers in the free market, and individual accumulation of wealth and power for its own sake. The war looks to have been won by one faction with a genocidal attack on a whole planet. But as the blurb on the cover states, ‘after the war, the battle for peace begins’. And so begins Embers of War.

On one hand, you have the autonomous and conscious spaceship, Trouble Dog and her motley crew of misfits, exiles and outcasts. Disgusted by her role in the genocide, she’s willingly accepted to be stripped of her (offensive) weaponry and seeking redemption has joined the House of Reclamation, an interstellar Red Cross of sorts that’s dedicated to rescuing ships in distress, often in dangerous situations. Captaining her is Sal Konstanz, a human looking to escape her own past, with a tough ex-soldier as her second-in-command. Rounding off the crew is a young medic and a blue alien spider called Nod.

On the other hand, you have a poet (without a past) called Ona Sudak who’s enjoying it all, her new-found fame, a starliner pleasure cruise and a young lover as she explores the galaxy when she finds her journey none-too-rudely interrupted by an attack which literally grounds the liner in alien territory.

Meanwhile, a Conglomeration secret agent, Ashton Childe is given a new mission, to track someone down and not too soon after he finds this assignment inextricably bound with a similar mission – though for different reasons – of his counterpart from the opposing Outward faction, Laura Petrushka.

Left: Cover of Embers of War, from Titan Books. Art by Julia Lloyd. Right: The BSFA Award-winning author of Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell (image via author’s site at garethlpowell.com)

As you’d expect, these three strands intertwine with each other over the course of the book, overlapping and at odds with each other but in a rich tapestry of hidden pasts, atonement, secrets, intrigue and action-packed pages of space battle sequences, as all the protagonists try to avert another war, while grappling with something that can have galaxy-wide implications.

A book that gallops along at an enjoyable nippy pace, the narrative duties Embers of War are taken by all of the characters, each given a chapter in many turns, as we see the story progress through the eyes of the point-of-view character in question, in first person, including the sentient ship, Trouble Dog which is as much a player in the game as any of the other conscious entities. It’s a tricky device to pull off but Gareth Powell does well, giving each character (and thusly, each short chapter) its own perspective, with most chapters ending in a mini-cliffhanger that compels you to turn the pages. The use of first-person narratives is all the more commendable in its capable handling given that this is the first time Gareth Powell has done it after many novels, as he says so in his acknowledgements.

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With each chapter of Embers of War, we don’t just a glimpse of the universe that the book is set – its history, politics, economic, races and tourist attractions – we also get a glimpse of what the characters themselves really are – their past, their motivations, their trauma and what they’re looking for, and looking to do. All without being overbearing and heavy, with enough sprinklings of humour. But what truly elevates this book is the emotion and the very human interplay between the characters – each of who is etched out and developed, including Trouble Dog – and way in which it makes us take sides, only to switch it, to root for a particular person (or alien, or ship) as they grapple with their inner conflict while a larger war raises its head over the horizon, hinted at by covert conspiracies that need uncovering and secret operations afoot. The prose is taut, and words well chosen, with nary a page wasted. And to go back to what made it enjoyable, it has all the familiar elements that made one fall in love with space opera in the first place, but delivered in a way that feels fresh and fun, with an ancient alien mystery thrown in for good measure and one that’s more than just a plot point, and keeps you wanting more.

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Embers of War is a fine, fulfilling, self-contained novel but with a lot of series potential. As you turn the last page, and the Embers of Wars ends, you get the feeling that though the book per se maybe over, there are still stories that Gareth Powell has still left to tell of this world you want to know more of, of the etched characters you want to know better. And these will be told in two subsequent novels to form a trilogy, of which Embers of wars is the first book. But let that not stop you from reading Embers of War now, because to wait for the trilogy to be out completely would be to deny yourself the pleasure of enjoying good space opera in the now. Plus, the next book is not too far away. And if you’re an Indian reader wondering if – as usual – all the good new sci-fi books are unavailable here, and if they are, would be priced out of your budget, Embers of War is quite accessible and affordable as a paperback not least from online stores. For once.

On that note, I sign off for this week and hope to see you next weekend again here on FactorDaily for the 99th edition of this New Worlds Weekly column as we explore yet another facet of science fiction together.

Live long and prosper!


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