A little over a year ago, I curtailed my review of Embers of War because of my broken elbow. I have now returned, stronger than ever, to review this sequel, Fleet of Knives. I finished this book in a single day, taking a break only to make dinner and watch Mean Girls (because it was October 3). This book is like candy to me. It is an invigorating space opera that balances grand, epic mysteries with smaller, more personal struggles. Gareth L. Powell’s plotting is measured and interesting, and his characters all carry their burdens with courage if not wisdom.
No spoilers for this book, but spoilers for the first book.
Fleet of Knives picks up soon after the first book finishes. The Marble Armada is parked in House of Reclamation space, negotiations and discussions ongoing. Ona Sedak rots in a prison, awaiting execution for her crimes—until a dramatic jailbreak leaves her in charge of the Armada, which has decided a killing spree of interstellar proportions is the only way to enforce peace. Meanwhile, Sal and her ship Trouble Dog take care of some spiritual business before they’re pulled back into Reclamation business: rescue the crew of the Lucy’s Ghost. Oh, and there might be monsters in hyperspace? Buckle up and strap in, my friends.
I want to start with the characterization, because that is truly what keeps me interested in these books. Powell’s people are all flawed, yet fortunately they are not flawed in the same way. (This sentiment is explicitly shared by our favourit Druff, Nod, at some point in the book!) Sal and Alva, for example, are both very broken—but they don’t really get along, because their broken pieces grate against one another. They are both trying to heal too, which is another thing I love about these books. Sometimes authors like to show off how edgy and broken and grim their characters are, and they never let those characters move beyond that pain to heal and grow and move on. Much like Maggie in Storm of Locusts, Sal is healing and growing in Fleet of Knives. Of course, the universe has a few more knocks to give her.
The evolution of Trouble Dog was perhaps more in the foreground in the first book, when she was evading her sisters and brothers and forced into battle against them. Yet she continues to grow here as well. A ship grown from the cloned cells of a dead human, Trouble Dog’s nascent emotional intelligence gets a workout as she must adopt some new crew members out of expediency—even as a current crew member doesn’t survive. By the way, Powell’s willingness to invest energy in building up a character only to kill them off not even really at the climax of the story? Love it. Don’t get me wrong—this isn’t some mad George R.R. Martin “kill all your darlings” situation. But I truly did not see that person’s death coming, and it was sad and beautiful in a bittersweet kind of way.
Similarly, Powell deftly intertwines the two major plots: the Armada’s extreme solution to human conflict, and the rescue of the Lucy’s Ghost crew. I enjoyed the new tidbits we get about the ancient threat the Armada was designed to protect against, even if one of its primary means of doing so is … um … gross? Oh, and without going into spoilers—how did Chet figure out that the Druff and the white ships are cousins?? Like it’s a cool little bit of info to drop, but there’s no explanation for why the Druff aboard Lucy’s Ghost is the one who deduces this. (As always, scenes with Nod are a delight though.)
My major grumble is mostly that Ona Sedak gets very little to do in this book. She basically sits around in the command centre of this incredibly powerful fleet, but she is still a prisoner. She serves at their whim. And whether or not she is morally on board with their plan, I wish she had exhibited a little more initiative in shaping their plan to her whims. Epic alien battle fleets are really only interesting as enemies when our side has ways of ferreting out their weaknesses (I realize Sedak isn’t on “our side,” but she also isn’t entirely on theirs). I hope the next book does just that.
Still, Fleet of Knives is a lot of fun and has moments of genuine touching beauty—like when Johnny and Addison decide what they will do if they survive this situation. Even when Powell strives for a great moment and doesn’t quite get there, the result is still good. I literally could not put this book down, and that’s not praise I often utter.
If you want good space opera with great, original characters and some cool ideas baked in, then this series is definitely for you.