The Stakes are Higher and the Ships are Smarter in Gareth L. Powell’s Fleet of Knives

Victory wasn’t the end. Isn’t that always the way it goes? Gareth L. Powell’s Fleet of Knives returns to the universe of his British Science Fiction Award-nominated Embers of War (also one of this blog’s favorite books of 2018). Following their success (or, at least, survival) at the Gallery, Sal Konstanz and the crew of the sentient, Carnivore-class ship Trouble Dog are back at work for the House of Reclamation, having once again foresworn conflict in favor of a commitment to rendering aid and assistance to ships in need.

From the very beginning, though, clouds loom on the horizon. On their last mission, Sal and company released the Marble Armada, a million-strong sentient alien fleet left behind by an intelligence that had long since fled the galaxy. Having reawakened the so-called Fleet of Knives, the crew also provided it with a mission: to ensure that nothing like the devastating Archipelago War could ever happen again.

Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

Like all well-intentioned wishes in literature, unexpected consequences follow. Recruiting poet, death row inmate, and one-time genocidal military commander Ona Sudak as a liaison, the fleet intends to impose strict order on the galaxy. It begins destroying every military and defense system among the known worlds, no matter who gets in the way. The fleet is perfectly happy to kill thousands or millions if the math suggests more lives will be saved in the longer term.

Meanwhile, newcomer Johnny Schultz and the small crew aboard the Lucy’s Ghost are planning a raid on an ancient artifact, a failed generation ship of the of the mysterious alien race the Nymtoq; the ship’s name translates to “The Restless Itch for Foreign Soil.” The spaceborne reliquary in their sights is both a tomb and a memorial for the Nymtoq; as such, it’s not something the aliens would be pleased to see desecrated. Nonetheless, there are doubtless riches beyond imagining there, waiting to be claimed by a brave and somewhat desperate team.

Again, unexpected consequences ensue: Lucy’s Ghost is damaged by… something during the journey, leading the crew to abandon the vessel for the Restless Itch, which proves to be hardly a refuge at all. Though Trouble Dog has received their distress call and is on the way, the same extra-dimensional incursion that damaged Lucy’s Ghost has deposited vicious, mindless creatures in the vicinity and drawn the attention of the Marble Fleet. Oh, and the much displeased Nymtoq are also on the way.

Last year, Embers of War impressed me in the way it balanced flashy space opera set-pieces with a deep humanity. That quality remains a core virtue here. The minds that make up the Marble Fleet act without anything resembling empathy, ending countless lives in a coldly logical plan to end suffering. The human characters reckon with the idea in different ways, some acknowledging that eliminating war might ultimately prove worth all those deaths, few willing to entirely ignore the staggering cost. In giving the book over to a rotating cast of point-of-view characters, Powell ensures the massive stakes never overwhelm the perspectives of individuals hoping to survive what ultimately turns into a siege, with dangers oncoming from at least three different sides.

What truly sets this series apart is the fact that this sense of “humanity” isn’t limited to the strictly human characters (or even those of flesh and blood). Trouble Dog’s very alien, quite long-suffering engineer Nod chimes in on the action, as does a hybrid intelligence existing in the body of a young girl. At the heart of it all is Trouble Dog, sentient spaceship par excellence. Still haunted by her actions as a warship, Trouble Dog’s past and burgeoning sense of self place her at the moral center of this universe.

As did the first book in this series, this sequel delivers big-stakes space opera told on an intimate scale. Amid the big questions of morality and the dire threats facing the characters, the brisk pacing and sense of adventure make Fleet of Knives a fun and fulfilling read in the best space-opera tradition.

Fleet of Knives: An Embers of War Novel is available February 19.

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