Space operas are often all about war, whether as a main subject or the source of the action. There’s an entire sub-genre devoted to military exploits in space; if our lead characters aren’t in the middle of some galaxy-spanning conflict, then they’re spending a great deal of time preparing for one. In Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell flips that idea in an intriguing way: as the title suggests, that galactic conflict is over by the end of the prologue. What’s left, for a group of souls struggling to find a place in a universe suddenly redefined by a shocking act of genocide, is dealing with the fallout.
Sal Konstanz captains the reclamation vessel Trouble Dog. Built as a warship, the sentient ship was on-hand for the conclusion of the war. As with the deployment of nuclear bombs during World War II, one side in the conflict made the decision to carry out an act of unprecedented destruction in order to bring the conflict to quick end, potentially saving lives in the long run despite the collateral damage. That’s what Trouble Dog‘s then-captain told herself before disappearing, pursued as a war criminal.
The once mighty warship is determined to atone for her captain’s role in the atrocity. She has been stripped of weaponry and chosen to join the House of Reclamation, a rag-tag organization with the goal of providing aid to injured travelers and stranded ships, regardless of species or political orientation. Having been involved in botched rescue that left one of her crew dead, Sal Konstanz is on her way to being cashiered out when a new emergency arises: a massive ship has mysteriously gone down in the vicinity of what’s called the Gallery of Objects.
The name belies the extraordinary nature of the area, full of planet-sized monuments carved by a mysterious and obviously powerful lost civilization. So it’s one more mission for Konstanz, Trouble Dog, and her skeptical crew. Speeding to the Gallery, they are joined by intelligence operatives desperate to make contact with one particular passenger of the downed vessel, a poet of no seeming importance. It soon becomes clear the rescue mission is far more complicated than it seems, with various factions making themselves known even as the mystery of the Objects looms.
This might sound like a lot of setup, but the pacing is flawless. The scope builds gradually from a character piece into something that encompasses all of known space, plus a few ancient alien mysteries. We track the action the eyes of a relatively small group of point-of-view characters, however, almost all of them complex women. The book never lets us forget why we’re here or who we’re meant to care about.
Gareth L. Powell is perhaps best known for his the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy, a series with a wild title and an even wilder premise that’s girded and elevated by a conscientious focus on characters that are interesting and believably human (even when they’re not strictly homo sapiens). Embers of War might be slightly less outré (no sentient cigar-smoking monkey Spitfire pilots), but Powell grounds the outer-space action and lived-in worldbuilding in the stories of characters of real depth.
What’s more, his view is consistently humane, even when his universe isn’t. Annelida Deal, who lead Trouble Dog in the genocidal action that ended the war; the ship itself; Captain Konstanz—each player is morally compromised in some way, either by their actions or inactions, and each is called to account. Eschewing for the most part the idea of villainy entirely, Powell gives even his most hatable characters the opportunity for redemption—part and parcel with the goals of the House of Reclamation itself.
Not everyone takes a chance at redemption, of course, but everyone deserves to at least be heard in the universe of Embers of War, where no one dreams of sainthood, but everyone hopes to be better than they are. This is a true space opera, full of suspense, and mystery, and stuff blowing up real good—but it’s the humanity of Powell’s vision that truly makes it something special.