Review: Embers of War, by Gareth L. Powell

Russ Allbery eagle at
Sun Feb 6 20:52:11 PST 2022

Embers of War
by Gareth L. Powell

Series:    Embers of War #1
Publisher: Titan Books
Copyright: February 2018
ISBN:      1-78565-519-1
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     312

The military leadership of the Outward faction of humanity was meeting
on the forest world of Pelapatarn, creating an opportunity for the
Conglomeration to win the war at a stroke. Resistance was supposed to
be minimal, since the Outward had attempted to keep the conference
secret rather than massing forces to protect it. But the Outward
resistance was stronger than expected, and Captain Deal's forces would
not be able to locate and assassinate the Outward leadership before
they could escape. She therefore followed orders from above her and
ordered the four incoming Carnivore heavy cruisers to jump past the
space battle and bomb the planet. The entire planet.

The Carnivores' nuclear and antimatter weaponry reduced the
billion-year-old sentient jungle of Pelapatarn to ash.

Three years later, Sal Konstanz is a ship captain for the House of
Reclamation, a strictly neutral search and rescue force modeled after a
long-vanished alien fleet that prioritizes preservation of life above
all else. Anyone can join Reclamation, provided that they renounce
their previous alliances and devote themselves to the Reclamation
cause. Sal and her crew member Alva Clay were Outward. The ship medic
was Conglomeration. So was the ship: the Trouble Dog, a sentient AI
heavy cruiser built to carry an arsenal of weapons and three hundred
crew, and now carrying three humans and a Druff mechanic. More
precisely, the Trouble Dog was one of the four Carnivores that
destroyed Pelapatarn.

Meanwhile, Ona Sudak, a popular war poet, is a passenger on a luxury
cruise on the liner Geest van Amsterdam, which is making an unscheduled
stop in the star system known as the Gallery. The Gallery is the home
of the Objects: seven planets that, ten thousand years earlier, were
carved by unknown aliens into immense sculptures for unknown reasons.
The Objects appear to be both harmless and mysterious, making them an
irresistible tourist attraction for the liner passengers. The Gallery
is in disputed space, but no one was expecting serious trouble. They
certainly weren't expecting the Geest van Amsterdam to be attacked and
brought down on the Object known as the Brain, killing nearly everyone
aboard. The Trouble Dog is the closest rescue ship.

This book was... fine. It's a perfectly serviceable science fiction
novel that didn't stand out for me, which I think says more about the
current excellent state of the science fiction field than about this
book. When I was a teenager reading Asimov, Niven, and Heinlein, I
would have devoured this. It compares favorably to minor Niven or
Heinlein (The Integral Trees, for example, or Double Star), but the bar
for excellent science fiction is just so much higher now.

The best character in this book (and the reason why I read it) is the
Trouble Dog. I love science fiction about intelligent space ships, and
she did not disappoint. The AI ships in this book are partly made from
human and dog neurons, so their viewpoint is mostly human but with some
interesting minor variations. And the Trouble Dog would be a great
character even if she weren't an intelligent ship: ethical, aggressive,
daring, and introspective, with a nuanced relationship with her human

Unfortunately, Embers of War has four other viewpoint characters, and
Powell chose to write them all in the first person. First person
narration depends heavily on a memorable and interesting character
because the reader is so thoroughly within their perspective. This
works great for the Trouble Dog, and is fine for Nod, the Druff who
serves as the ship mechanic. (Nod's perspective is intriguing, short,
almost free-verse musings, rather than major story segments.) Sal, the
ship captain, is a bit of a default character, but I didn't mind her
much. Neither of the other two viewpoint characters are interesting
enough to warrant the narrative attention. The Conglomerate agent
Ashton Childe has such an uninteresting internal monologue that I would
have liked the character better if he'd only been seen through other
people's viewpoints, and although Powell needs some way to show Ona
Sudak's view of events, I didn't think her thoughts added much to the

The writing is adequate but a bit clunky: slightly flat descriptions, a
bit too predictable at the sentence level, and rarely that memorable.
There is a bit of fun world-building of the ancient artifact variety
and a couple of decent set pieces (and one rather-too-obvious Matrix
homage that I didn't think was as effective as the author did), but
most of the story is focused on characters navigating their lives and
processing trauma from the war. The story kept me turning the pages
with interest, but I also doubt it will surprise anyone who has read
much science fiction. I suspect a lot of it is setup for the following
two books of the trilogy, and there are plenty of hooks for more
stories in this universe.

I really wanted a first-person story from the perspective of the
Trouble Dog, possibly with some tight third-person interludes showing
Ona Sudak's story. What I got instead was entertaining but not
memorable enough to stand out in the current rich state of science
fiction. I think I'm invested enough in this story to want to read the
next book, though, so that's still a recommendation of sorts.

Followed by Fleet of Knives.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-02-06


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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