Sunday 8 April 2018

Embers of War - Review

While it’s constructed in the style of a classic military science fiction tale, and could easily be read as
Gareth L. Powell's work has lost none
of its engaging action, but has gained
depth and nuance.
(Image via 
nothing more than a visceral high-octane adventure, Embers of War is a novel with some depth.

Set in the wake of a bloody war that almost ripped humanity in two, Gareth Powel’s latest novel follows the crew of a rescue ship that is sent to investigate the disappearance of a starliner in a star system filled with massive alien artifacts. 

The crew – and the sentient ship’s AI – served on different sides during the conflict, and have to come to grips with both what they did during the war, and with each other’s culpability. 

These simmering resentments and regrets strengthen the story, and offer some intellectual heft. Like its intellectual forebearer The Forever War, this is a military science fiction novel that philosophically rejects conflict, and chooses to grapple with its aftermath. 

Told in tight, concise chapters that rarely exceed six pages, the story jumps between the perspectives of the ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, the ship’s AI Trouble Dog, the spy Ashton Childe, and marooned passenger of the straliner Ona Sudak.

The brevity of the chapters – and the fact that something important happens or is revealed in each one – gives the story a brisk pace and a lively narrative momentum.

Powell has been quietly building a fair body of work – and developing his craft – since his first short
Gareth L. Powell's work keeps getting
better. We look forward to his next novel.
(Image via the author's Twitter account)
stories were published about a decade ago. His 2012 novel Ack-Ack Macaque earned him a fair following, as did its sequels. He has stepped up his game in Embers of War, offering more fully fleshed out characters and tempering his previous penchant for awkward explanatory passages.

The universe of the book is never fully fleshed out, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s little explanation of the political situation outside of where it directly impacts the protagonists, and little view of the galactic milieu, other than knowing that the crew are working in a disputed region of space. Powell doesn’t take his reader for granted and doesn’t talk down to them in this volume.

It is unfortunate, however, that the ending of the book is based on a deux et machina contrivance that readers will spot coming from a mile away. From the first 20 pages, one guesses that the massive incomprehensible alien artifacts have a purpose, and of course, that purpose is realized in the final 20 pages. This ending is also very convenient for every character involved in the story.

The final chapters felt obvious and flat, which is a shame when the rest of the novel had so many surprises and engaging character moments.

That being said, Embers of War will receive strong consideration on our Hugo Award ballots for 2018. It’s nice when a book that offers so much fun can also provide more than just escapism.