“Embers of War” by Gareth Powell is one of those books I have long meant to read and finally got around to doing so. About time, too; it’s going to be produced as a TV series at some point. It’s a first-class space opera that hooks you from the start with multi-dimensional, flawed characters; and one of the most interesting things about it is how it juggles all their points of view into one cohesive, fun universe.
The book opens with a flashback, a battle scene on board the Scimitar Righteous Fury as Captain Annelida Deal prepares to do her duty and massacre the sentient forests of Pelapatarn to deliver a decisive end to the embittered conflict between the Conglomeration and The Outward, warring human factions. Then the story jumps to the bridge of the Trouble Dog, a former war horse (not the same one) turned salvage ship which has dedicated its life to redemption as a member of the peace-faring House of Reclamation. Their medic is attacked by a strange creature and is killed on the rescue mission, just as they receive a distress call from ships stoking the embers of another conflict in a distant part of space. And so the adventure ensues.
What makes this colorful cast of characters unique is that all of them, from the ship whose brain is built with human stem cells, to Captain Sal Konstanz, all have something to prove. They start off flawed, making sometimes terrible mistakes, and, wracked by guilt and inevitability, they seek to atone for those tragedies. It’s a study in ethics, morality and duty as each grapples with difficult choices and errors in judgment.
It could be argued that their mistakes are gray areas and the level of responsibility owed to them is at issue – for example, Captain Deal was just following orders and doing what she thought was right; the creature acted too fast for Captain Konstanz or her ship to react, even though she did not follow procedure; the spy Ashton Childe was simply trying to fulfill his mission, even though a system full of drugs led him to make poor choices. Speaking of, this crew has some simply fantastic names.
Duty, honor and redemption are themes that play out throughout the book as we switch between the viewpoints of Nod, an alien mechanic; Trouble Dog herself; Ashton Childe; and Captain Deal, now in hiding and posing as the poet Ona Sudak. With such an expansive universe, this technique allows us to get on the side of all these characters and dig in deep with the universe. Soon you find yourself rooting for this ragtag yet duty-bound crew on their missions of honor, overcoming their troubled pasts in blazes of reckless glory.
At times the writing style got a bit bogged down in technical descriptions of equipment or the science behind space travel, but I liked the constant viewpoint switching and the short chapters; it kept the pace up and kept me reading more, turning this into an exhilarating ride through a strong universe. And I definitely stayed for these wonderful characters and the ethical choices they had to make. I would read the rest of this series.