Embers of War
by Gareth L. Powell
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Gareth L. Powell has been publishing stories and novels for nearly fifteen years, but I'm pretty sure this is the first thing I've read by him. Embers of War is a space opera, the first book in a proposed trilogy. In the afterword, he says it was his first attempt at writing in first person (novel at least), which is difficult enough for many writers, but I felt he made a mistake in not containing it to just one narrator, or in not writing in third person. Instead, he alternates between five characters, with the penultimate chapter from the viewpoint of a sixth, an AI consciousness. One of the other five is also an AI, the heart of the House of Reclamation ship Trouble Dog, which would have been my preference as the sole narrator. I'm not sure if it was the case with other ship's AIs, but human stem cells were used as a base to build its consciousness, and it occasionally has thoughts or visions it suspects may be memories from her donor. A short prologue concerns the concluding action in the Archipelago War, in which Trouble Dog took part. After the war, the ship quit the Conglomeration fleet to do humanitarian work with the House of Reclamation.
There are several factions in the Generality, the combined human forces throughout explored space. The two involved in the Archipelago War were the Conglomeration and the Outward. The Multiplicity includes all human forces as well as many alien civilizations, although the aliens get minimal mention in this first book. I would like to have seen more background information, especally concerning the Hearthers, although succeeding books might give us some flashbacks. All we know so far is they were an alien race (I think) which disappeared thousands of years before, but reports of their Communal Grouping of Individual Hearths into One, Dedicated to the Preservation and Recovery of Stricken Itinerants remain, which in turn inspired Sofia Nikitas to form the House of Reclamation. Think of it as a Red Cross in space. Sofia's great, great granddaughter, Sally Konstanz, had commanded a medical transport during the war, but now is the captain of the Trouble Dog, and one of the narrators.
The first chapter sees the Trouble Dog attempting the rescue of the crew of the Hobo, which had crashed in the water on an unnamed planet. Only two of the crew are saved before the Hobo sinks in the thousands feet deep ocean, but unfortunately they die before they can make it to a hospital station. By the time they do make it to port, they have been called to investigate an apparent attack on the passenger cruise ship Geest van Amsterdam, which had been enroute to The Gallery, a planetary system that had been transformed by an unkown entity into what is thought of as an art installation. Seven planets had been reshaped into what had been named, from nearest their sun outward, the Teardrop, Jagged Bolt, Brain, Inverted City, Dodecahedron, Flared Goblet, and Broken Clock. Many human and alien groups consider The Gallery to be in their territory, so any action in that system was bound to attract attention. The story is basically a mystery, but unfortunately some clues were revealed too early, such as the true identity of one of the other narrators, Ona Sudak, a passenger aboard the Amsterdam.
I won't go into further details concerning the events in the Gallery or what is discovered inside the Brain. Suffice it to say it opens up the story for the later books, but doesn't provide much resolution to the mystery. It does introduce several new pieces of the puzzle, at least one of which begs an argument. Trying not to spoil here, but one group says they are adamantly opposed to violence, because any such activity would attract the attention of the enemy. Where was that enemy years ago during the Archipelago War, was that not enough of a level of violence for them to notice? I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads. Some portions would warrant a higher score, while others would lower it. The main fault is the style of the narration. Third person would have worked better. In first person you have to deduce when the information is being imparted, during the action, as if being dictated into a recorder, or afterward as a recollection. I'm not sure, but some of the descriptions don't make sense either way, almost like it's just the character's internal dialogue. The chapters are all very short, mostly just depicting the action and conversations, without much information being imparted about the characters. Also, there are multiple times certain phrases are used, figures of speech, colloquialisms, that are anachronistic in a far future space adventure. Why would anyone, in asking how far it is from one planetary system to another, use the words "as the crow flies"? Another instance, someone describing their injuries feeling like they'd been "gored by a bull." How many times had that happened to them or anyone they knew?
In conclusion, it was entertaining enough but also frustrating due to reasons I've already stated. There were a couple of characters that didn't get their own perspective told, both of whom I wanted to know more about. This is an ambitious story, harking back to the days of the grand space opera of the Golden Age. Yet if falls short of hooking me into being anxious for the next book. Not to say I won't continue with it, but it may depend on how well the subsequent books are received by other readers and reviewers.
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