Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

book cover of Embers of War

I’m often a bit hesitant to start reading a space opera. There are lots of ideas and concepts the genre can explore that I find fascinating, and yet a lot of the genre seems to revolve around cardboard cut-out characters and “whose gun is bigger?” petty one-upmanship. Thankfully, that’s not at all the case here!

Embers of War is set in a universe some years after an large-scale war that ended in a continent-spanning massacre on the planet of Pelapatarn. The impact left by this war continues to be strongly felt. There are a number of POV characters, including the sentient spaceship Trouble Dog, which had been the one ordered to fire missiles in the massacre of Pelapatarn, and seeks to redeem herself through service with the House of Reclamation – an altruistic organisation that sails through space on a shoestring budget, saving those in danger.

The plot revolves around a rescue mission – a ship carrying hundreds of people has been shot down in a hotly contested solar system where the “planets” consist of gigantic sculptures. Aboard the Trouble Dog, Sal Konstanz and her 2IC Alva Clay are sent to search for survivors. Joining them is a “medic” who turns out to be an unqualified 19-year-old whose father pulled strings to get him a gig. At a stopover point, they pick up two further passengers – Ashton Childe and Laura Petrushka – whose motivations are unclear and loyalty is questionable. Ashton, in turn, is on a mission to recover one specific passenger: Ona Sudak, a poet, although what makes her so important is something he doesn’t know.

What impressed me throughout this book was the sheer depth of the characters. These are people (and a spaceship) who carry the emotional baggage of past tragedies around with them. You get to see their soft, vulnerable sides as well as their hard-as-nails businesslike sides.

I also appreciated the bit of philosophy that came through in the book – from the dilemma of whether or not it’s right to commit a massacre to end a war, to questions of redemption and how possible that is to achieve, to Nod’s conception of the circle of life. I’m not saying that any of these things were explored in great detail, but the inclusion at them at all added a nice humanistic touch (if you can say that about a book where there are many sentient beings other than humans).

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book. There is a sequel already out, which I’ve duly added to my ever-expanding TBR list.

Books in the Embers of War trilogy

  1. Embers of War (you are here)
  2. Fleet of Knives
  3. Light of Impossible Stars


a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.