Review of Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
Embers of War
by Gareth L. Powell
This review will be shorter than usual because I broke my elbow and have one hand in a cast.
Trouble Dog is a sentient warship that developed a conscience after directly participating in a genocide that ended the last war between two human factions. Since then, she has joined up with the House of Reclamation, a kind of interstellar Red Cross, in an attempt to atone. The latest distress call she and her crew respond to, however, proves far more dangerous and political than it should be. Trouble Dog's captain, Sal Konstanz, must "let her off the leash" to fight her former ships-in-arms—ships that have retained their full complement of weapons. Meanwhile, not-so-secret agents from both sides are also present, looking to rescue a very specific passenger.
Powell's particular style of space combat works for me. There's a good balance of fancy, exciting SF tech without dipping too far into space fantasy. He's picked a good overall level of technological development for the human "Generality" of this book. Combat relies on a combination of tactics and stealth along with superior firepower. By adjusting the slider on one when the other tilts too far in one side's favour, Powell keeps things fresh and suspenseful in a way that sustains interest.
Similarly, the POV shifts proved welcome instead of distracting. These can be hit-or-miss for me, but they are effective here. Powell has a talent for knowing precisely when to switch up the perspective to leave me just dissatisfied enough to keep reading for more from that character. I didn't like all of the viewpoint characters equally, of course. Childe was far too whiny and, frankly, bad at his job. Shout-out to Nod, whose very alien narration might seem superfluous, even indulgent, on one level, but is interesting, to me, for its contrast. Unlike the other narrators, Nod isn't seeking redemption.
This redemption arc that's so central to Embers of War, though, is lacklustre at best. Powell makes a big show out of everyone ending up at the House of Reclamation as having some reason they need that fresh start. Yet we don't see much growth from these characters over the course of the story. The exception might be Sal, who finds herself thrust into making military decisions that cost lives. Nevertheless, the thematic elements of this book are where it's weakest. Other than Trouble Dog making one lampshading quip about her ambivalence regarding their new ally's tactics, Powell declines to really dig into the significance of the story's endgame. I can only hope the next book does.
Because whatever its faults, Embers of War leaves me wanting more. More of this universe, more of these characters, more intrigue … I just hope Powell raises the stakes for the next one.