Embers of War is a book that ticks all the boxes – plot, worldbuilding, characters, writing style, immersion and quite simply exudes a slick, professional vibe.
“They say that our remembrances shape our personalities. But what happens to us when our recollections are altered? Who do we become?”
I’d been meaning to get around to reading Embers of War for weeks. Months, in fact. It was one of the first books that caught my attention when I started blogging and I’ve been following Gareth Powell on the platform since then. I’d pointed others in the direction for a book/series that looks really good, but hadn’t started myself. It was worth the wait.
Probably the number one thing I loved is the writing style and the ability of the author to create visualisations in my head, enabling me to read fully immersed in the book and my own (and Gareth Powell’s) imagination. He is able to captivate you as a reader and immerse you in the universe(s) he has created, to leave the confines of Earth and explore the stars. I often struggle to internally visualise events or locations, especially on a large scale when reading; it’s a trait that particularly frustrates me and takes me out of the action. I didn’t find this to be the case once here, with the perfect level of detail, the descriptions seamlessly blending with the action and events transpiring on the page, enabling me to remain transfixed on the story.
This is partly down to the inventive world building, with both the telling of past events and immediacy of present events intertwining to build the fabric and foundations of the
world interstellar space Powell introduces us to. Because it is a future reality, we have the familiarity of our solar system and Earth with the introduction of new cultures and worlds beyond, such as The Gallery – a unique solar system, starting off pretty ordinary until around 10,000 years before the setting of our story, the planets being resculpted by unknown hands. 6,000 years later, human explorers discovered the system and renamed the carvings according to their shapes.
We are therefore far enough in our future to see the ways in which humans have advanced beyond an earthly confinement to exist and interact with other races all over space. The underlying event of the book however is a war (and continuing conflict) between The Outward and The Conglomeration; humans factions whose war officially ended with the bombing and destruction of the sentient jungle of Pelapatarn; a world’s biosphere reduced to ash and charred remains. We aren’t prompted to pick a side necessarily, although one is cast in a more negative light than the other; we are predominantly rooting for Trouble Dog (and her crew) – a reclamation vessel more concerned with saving lives than ending them.
There are serious themes, which you’d be right to expect when the prologue features a nuclear holocaust. Themes such as diversity, acceptance, the human condition, capitalism, genetics and ethics. It makes for a more layered and nuanced read that these themes make up much of the story without ever really being in your face or feeling preachy. At its heart it is a very fun space opera with plenty of light hearted moments and inventive elements. Much of the fun takes place with the above mentioned Trouble Dog, one of the POV characters.
Now then. Trouble Dog is a former Conglomeration ‘carnivore’ class destroyer of armadas, basically. Decommissioned and allowed to keep defensive weaponry only, she serves the House of Reclamation, which in turn serves the whole of the Human Generality, regardless of previous allegiances. Think something similar to joining the Night’s Watch. Sort of. Her guilt over the role she played in the destruction of Pelapatarn is the main driving force that spurs her on in this role.
“Wait” you say, “Didn’t you just tell us Trouble Dog is a Reclamation Vessel – now you say she’s a POV character with feelings of guilt?”
Yep. And this is something that I thought would really put me off before I gave the book a chance. A spaceship as a POV character – Ok, I suppose if the AI is sophisticated enough it could work like M-Bot in Skyward, which was kinda cool.
No – the ship’s intelligence is organic. What? That’s a little bit too wacky and ‘out there’ to take this seriously, surely? I asked myself.
In actual fact, it’s brilliant. And I’m so glad I didn’t let my ignorance dissuade me from reading the book simply because I didn’t like the idea of a sentient ship with a personality. Without revealing everything and spoiling the novel elements, the vessel is still a mechanical, man made beast, its brain is organic; DNA taken from a human, with traits taken from canine DNA too. The science in this respect isn’t dwelled on for ages, and the book is better for it, but I found it really cool and it made for a really interesting POV character in Trouble Dog, raising its own questions – something I think all good science fiction books do. If a being has human brain cells, do humans have a right to try and control it or own it? Does an entity with its own thought processes, guilt, anger, self preservation deserve the same considerations as human beings? If a body isn’t important then, is every human consciousness sacred, even if it exists in some abstract format? I don’t mean to imply that this book answers or even asks all of those questions itself, but it provides the spark to consider such questions as we read.
While we are on POVs, I really enjoyed all of the characters for different reasons, my other favourite perhaps being Sal Konstanz, captain of the Trouble Dog and the expedition that takes up most of the plot – a rescue mission to help crashed liner The Geest Van Amsterdam. It’s interesting witnessing her relationship with Trouble Dog, a captain issuing orders to a sentient vessel with perhaps more experience than she, one with the ability to think for herself.
I really liked how the POV chapters were written in first person narrative, which is something I haven’t experienced before, any multiple POV book I’ve read being written in third person. The change of perspectives and locations with none of the chapters being overly long kept the story fresh whilst maintaining the pace and moving the plot forward.
I realise I’ve already written quite a lot for this review, and I could dissect it all day examining plenty more elements I really enjoyed. Sometimes you finish a book and smile, you get a warm feeling at the journey you experienced and that’s how I felt. I can enjoy a book and still not be bothered about reading it’s sequel, but I really am impatient to read Fleet of Knives. Most of my books are ebooks and I do tend to buy the first in a series in this format while I test the water. Within the next week I’ll be buying Embers of War, as well as the other two books in the current trilogy in hardcopies, so that I have them in on my shelves. That should be praise enough. This really was a fantastic read and so welcome at a time of global uncertainty where an escape is appreciated. Embers of War took me away from reality on a hell of a journey to “the ragged edge of interstellar space” and I can’t wait to return.
As always, you’re more than welcome to contact me to ask about trigger/content warnings as with any book. Embers of War doesn’t have many of what I’d call the main triggers but there are maybe one or two things to mention if you have any particular susceptibility to certain themes. Thanks for reading.