Embers of War

By Gareth L. Powell
Titan Books, ISBN: 978-1785655180
Paperback, 411 pages. ©2018

Three years have passed since the horrific war crime at Pelepetarn. Seemingly unconnected events draw four individuals—a Reclamation captain with much to lose, a poet with a past, an intelligence agent who wants out, and a warship with a conscience—into a distant, disputed system to rescue possible survivors of a downed ship.

But things don’t go as planned when the recovery crew discovers a prize everyone would want, and most would kill to control. The problem? Someone else found it first, and they want no witnesses.

Embers of War is a military sci-fi novel that kept me up past my bedtime every night. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s fast-paced, and filled with tension. But author Gareth Powell also does a masterful job of weaving character development into the action. Bit by bit, we come to know each of the point-of-view characters and, in the process, learn what drives them to their decisions and actions. I found myself rooting for all of them, and even wondering what I would have done in their circumstances.

Wartime predicaments often leave no “good” choices. In the aftermath, leaders who give orders—and those who follow them—must learn to live with the consequences. Embers takes us into the minds of ex-soldiers who’ve done and seen things that still haunt their dreams. Even non-military characters have been affected by the past war and, more to the point, the present brewing tensions. As the story progresses, their ever-ready responses in a few scenes exposed as much about their state of mind as did their poignant reflections or their longing to make amends.

Even though there are five point-of-view characters, the entire book is told in first person, with each chapter named for the character who’s speaking. At first this caught me off-guard, but I adapted quickly, even found it refreshing. I especially enjoyed the chapters with Trouble Dog, the warship with a conscience. Unveiling her personality felt like unwrapping a gift. Each little detail revealed layers to her that felt, well, human to me. Given that her “brain” came from human and canine stem cells, I fully bought her characterization and was hooked on seeing where the story would carry her.

None of the characters are stereotypical heroes or villains. Instead, I found Embers peopled by multilayered, complex individuals. Each carried baggage. Each sought to be more now than they were then. Each surprised me at least once. One character, Nod, is completely alien in his speech and appearance, and yet I related to him, to his simplicity. I was able to understand his mindset, and enjoyed his brief interludes.

The story was complex enough to keep the tension wound tight and to hold my eyes on the pages, though not so much so that I got confused about the details. I read it in a week, but I would have read it faster were it not for other obligations. It was that hard to stop. The second book, Fleet of Knives, is out, and I’ll be reading that as well. The third book, The Light of Impossible Stars, is (I believe) due out in 2020. It’s already on my to-be-read list.

In Embers of War, Powell has successfully mingled a plot-driven narrative with a character-driven one, and the novel shines for his efforts. I’m looking forward to following Trouble Dog and her crew in the next adventure.