Embers of War is intimate, character-drive space opera done right. Gareth L. Powell gives us the story of Trouble Dog, a Carnivore-class heavy cruiser who has sworn off war and joined the House of Reclamation. The House of Reclamation is a sort of search and rescue operation, something like a galactic Red Cross, that serves all humanity, ignoring the borders of star nations. Sentient, snarky spaceships are fast becoming my favorite sci-fi trope, and Powell gives us one of the best.
There is a lot to enjoy in Embers of War. The world building is very interesting, including thousands of years of galactic history. Powell manages to give us the relevant points in that sweeping history without it ever feeling overwhelming or expository. There aren't long technical discussions in this one, and while I do tend to enjoy technological systems and some explanation of how technology works, the lack of that here allowed the novel to have a more action-oriented feel. This worked very well for me and I was quickly swept up in the story. But this also isn't a summer blockbuster sort of sci-fi with more explosions than story. Where the novel really shines is in the characters. From Trouble Dog, our sentient and sometimes very, very snarky starship, to Sal, her captain, and everyone in between there are stories to be told, emotions to be felt, and banter to be enjoyed. The crew of misfits makes this story work. In many ways, the crew interactions are reminiscent of Joss Whedon's Firefly TV series. Trouble Dog is definitely my favorite, but beyond that, I'd be hard pressed to pick a second favorite character in the story, not because none of them are worthy but because they all are. Each character has a backstory that we care about, and each backstory has an obvious and important impact on who they are now. It's these backstories that allow them to shape the current story in interesting ways. This really is character-driven science fiction and I am here for it. I was particularly taken with the way each of the characters have some amount of pain in the past and how this brings up questions of ethics and morality. Along with this, we see heroes who solve problems in ways that don't always result in the biggest explosions, and I think that is sometimes all too rare.
As I mentioned, there isn't a great deal of technical description in this one, and for those who prefer explanation for their sci-fi worlds, that may be a negative. The way the story is told, I don't think anything is lacking because of this, but it's something to be aware of. It also isn't military science fiction, and isn't trying to be. The characters are - by and large - not officers in a galactic navy or other military branch. Again, this doesn't hinder the story because that's not the sort of story this is trying to be. Perhaps the only real criticism I have is that there are a few times where the character's various struggles can become perhaps overly heavy, and where some of the humor can feel a little jolting as a result.
Embers of War could easily be read as a standalone, but I'm so invested in the characters that I can't wait to read the sequel. Wonderful, deep characters make this story come alive and the deep world building hooks and engages you. Powell is giving us something special here.
Review by Calvin Park
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