Fleet of Knives is the second in Gareth Powell’s Embers of War series, and like its predecessor, it’s a good one. Here we have science fiction that asks some big questions, and dose so through the lens of characters we care about, in a universe filled with wonder and terror in equal measure.
Speaking of which. That universe. It’s an interstellar polity in the aftermath of a conflict that nearly broke everyone involved. Both sides exhausted. But the end of the war, that sits on the shoulders of crew and ships who committed an atrocity to bring the end to a conflict that was reducing everything to rubble. But this isn’t that story. It’s the story of the aftermath. Those people, and their ships, live different lives now, where they’ve survived. Those people, and their ships, are paying their penance. To be sure, some take a different approach to others, but they all are marked by that experience.
The universe, however, rolls on. Alien species meet humanity. Trade, fight, make agreements. Ignore or participate in squabbles. The tapestry of this space is writ large, filled with the and the familiar. I have a particular soft spot for the , a many-face-handed species who work and fix things and grumble and live in nests, and keep their crews close whatever serves them for hearts, as they live a quiet, collective faith. But there’s starkly vast hulks, generation ships crossing the vast gaps between the stars. broken monuments to the hubris of humanity, on a global scale. intelligent AI personalities, who have absolutely no time for any of your nonsense. There’s a whole rich play out beyond the boards of the story, and that helps put flesh on the bones of the narrative, helps it feel alive, helps it feel real. This is a vast, unimaginable, interconnected universe – and though the characters are small within it, they are giants unto themselves. This is a space that breathes, that has history, that is showing us part of itself – but there’s so much more out there to see.
And onto this stage step our players. Most notorious, perhaps, is the Trouble Dog. As an aside, the name remains an absolute delight. Anyway. The Trouble Dog has gone, if not up in the world, at least sideways. Having given purpose to a fleet of alien warships, she’s now back saving lives, after a rest and refit. I’m always delighted to share the thoughts of the Trouble Dog; wry, sometimes sarcastic, driven working very hard to find a home, to keep her crew close, to keep the razor’s edge of the universe at bay whilst also being rather sharp herself. There’s an honesty to this ship, a quiet vulnerability, and a vast reservoir of courage. You can rely on Trouble Dog to rescue those in need, look after her crew, and to impolitely tell bullies exactly where they can tick it.
That ably assisted by her crew, including the Trouble Dog’s captain, haunted by her own failure to keep all of her crew alive. Here is a wonderfully drawn mixture of anxiety, stress and raw bravery, mixed with compassion. The others are similarly compelling, similarly real. The young medic, struggling to deal with the aftermath of events that left him alone, but for the crew, trying to comprehend his place in the world where he can shape his own destiny. The veteran, still scarred by older losses, looking for understanding, and looking for a fight. The engineer, just trying to use as many of its face-hands as possible to get things fixed before the human idiots get of the ship blown again. They’re all here, the survivors of the Trouble Dog, trying to shape a new life, a new meaning into their worlds, living with and paying for past sins.
There are others of course, new and old faces. And they have the same humanity as these ones we know well. The same depth, the same grace (or otherwise). The same conflicted, troubled that lets us see their goals, see the validity and truth of what shaped them, what drives them, even if we don’t agree with it. Or, if we consider the alien, the strangeness. The views that seem to fit together, but end up taking us down deep, dark holes. The difference of experience which feels like something not human, but still a person.
I guess what I’m saying is, this is some seriously strong character work. The people, be they alien, A.I. or even humans, feel like people. They live and breathe and bleed and die and love and hope on the page, and you’ll feel their pain and their affection with each word you read.
Then there’s the story. I won’t spoil it, of course. But it goes interesting places. Asks questions about the cars we wear, if they shape us, and how they do. But it also, and this is important, is a damn fun story. some beautiful ballets of space combat, there’s daring rescues. There are, and I am not exaggerating, some seriously unpleasant villains. There’s conflict that makes you gasp and turn the page to see what happens next, and dialogue that will sear itself across your brain like fire in the blood. chases, and escapes. Feats of daring that left my heart in my mouth. Tragedies that wrench at you, and moments of quiet triumph that make it all worthwhile.
So yeah, Fleet of Knives. It’s a great sequel, a great work of science fiction, and I encourage everyone reading this to go catch the further adventures of Trouble Dog, preferably right away.