The act of combining man and machine into something more has fascinated science-fiction authors for decades. There’s something mysterious and wonderful about the similarities between firing neurons and humming microprocessors. But what if the union of organic and inorganic matter manifested in the form of an entire space ship? What if the Millennium Falcon could speak? If Gareth L. Powell’s ripping sci-fi space opera is any guide, it would be one heck of a ride.
In Powell’s future, military spacecraft are sentient, capable of communicating and choosing their course without input from a human. The Trouble Dog, one such ship in the Conglomeration fleet, seeks penance from the destruction she wrought during wartime by joining the House of Reclamation, a search-and-rescue company. When an unknown ship shoots down a large space liner carrying a thousand tourists in a disputed system, the Trouble Dog and her scrappy crew rush to the rescue. What they discover, however, could start an all-out war.
Like the ship herself, Embers of War practically zooms across space, pulling the reader along with it. This is an excellently paced adventure that swells with energy and force, upping the stakes at every turn of the page. It also manages to consider some heady and relevant questions as it jumps in and out of hyperspace. A longing for redemption is laced through the story, adding welcome emotional momentum to each new challenge. This also makes the concept of ships as sentient beings all the more intriguing; like any human, Trouble Dog struggles to articulate feelings of remorse, self-loathing and doubt.
Having such a fun ensemble cast also keeps the narrative upbeat. The calm and confident warship, the dropout punk captain, the intelligence agent in an exoskeleton—all are sharply defined and full of life. Short, varied third-person chapters buzz from one perspective to another, almost like cuts in a film. The reader always feels close to the main story, never needing to pause for breath between one important passage and the next.
Readers will no doubt notice a number of sci-fi influences here. Heinlein and Clark, along with a healthy dose of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” might have stoked the engines for Trouble Dog’s journey. Though no stranger to space opera thanks to 2011’s The Recollection, Powell’s deft hand at action scenes and his confidence with high concepts like sentient spacecraft should make any reader looking for a new voice in the genre very pleased indeed.