Every so often, the current zeitgeist of science fiction, particularly space opera, gets distilled into one book. In the eighties and nineties, everyone wanted to write the next Star Trek, a trend only encouraged by Star Wars. Never mind that Star Wars came from a failure to get the rights to Flash Gordon, a franchise that later aped Lucas’s creation.
In the 2000s, space opera took on more of a Firefly feel after a decade of Andromeda‘s slapped-together Starfleet (with the serial numbers filed off) and Farscape, along with a long-running Stargate franchise. But space opera today is getting most of its cues from books. Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Adrian Tchaikovsky made their aliens more alien, even their actions. From bizarre interdimensional hideouts to planets carved into sculpture to AI-driven ships that get frustrated with their jobs, one might consider modern scifi to be more a darker version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (I fully expect a modern version to come from Arkady Martine. A Planet Called Lonely: A Tourist’s Guide. There you go, Arkady. License to print money.)
Gareth Powell has found all the tropes, stuck them in a blender, and hit frappe. The result is Embers of War and its subsequent series. Powell has elements seen before in the work of Anne Leckie, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Alastair Reynolds. From the duty-bound and guilt-ridden ship’s AI of Ancillary Justice to the planet-sized sculptures of Shards of Earth to aliens lying in wait… elsewhere as in Revelation Space, Powell has crammed it all into one novel. Yet while a lesser writer might have simply shoe-horned everything from the last ten years into a story and hoped all the tropes sell (I’m looking at you fantasy writers, pretending you’re not doing Lord of the Rings fanfic), he comes up with something wholly original while using the now-familiar to tell the tale.
Embers of War is written from largely four points of view: A former warship-turned-rescue-vessel Trouble Dog, a veteran medical captain facing possible disgrace named Sal Konstanz, a hard-luck intelligence operative named Ashton Child, and a “war poet,” Ona Sudak. This last is not what she appears to be.
Sudak begins the story as a self-important middle-aged poet enjoying the attentions of a much younger and less talented poet. It’s a reversal of the rock star groupie with the older woman and the worshipful younger man. However, she is not what she appears, and for all her pretentions, it’s soon revealed she’s paying for a war crime her own government order her to commit. Because we need scapegoats when we do that, don’t we?
Elsewhere, Konstanz, a captain in the House of Reclamation, is still carrying baggage from that same war where she served on the opposite side. The House is a sort of interstellar Red Cross, but a mission goes sideways. Her professional execution is postponed when a liner, carrying Sudak, is downed on a sculpture carved from a planet called “the Brain.” With a wholly unqualified medic and a hostile security officer, she travels to the brain aboard the Trouble Dog, herself a ship with a war history. Seems Contanz and the Dog were on opposite sides. Only the Trouble Dog did what we rarely see starships do in space opera. She quit. Along the way, they pick up Ashton Child, an intelligence agent in virtual exile. He and his opposite number have interests in the liner, and Constanz needs people who can double as medics.
All of these people are damaged. The House of Reclamation is the last chance for most of them. Yet even that has its drawbacks. Trouble Dog, for instance, does intellectual gymnastics to rearm herself as the rescue degenerates into a highly illegal attack on yet another ship, this time her. As the ship, Constanz, and Child learned more about why the stricken liner went down, Ona herself learns that the very people who helped her create her new identity and escape railroading for following orders also put her in mortal danger.
Powell’s strength is world-building. As familiar as some of the elements are, most of them are meant to be revisited or serve as background. It’s a universe I would like to come back to again.