I put a hand across my mouth. “What are you doing?”
We act to preserve life.
“By killing people?”
By destroying the means to wage war. Only when war is impossible will life be safe.
–Conversation between Ona Sudak and the Emissary of the Marble Armada.
Source: Review Copy
Publisher: Titan Books
Date of Publication: February 19, 2019
It’s been six months since the events of Embers of War. Ona Sudak, better known as Annelida Deal, “the Butcher of Pelaptarn”, is awaiting execution for war crimes. As her punishment looms, Deal is violently broken out of prison and brought before the leadership entity of the Marble Armada. It is hoped by the Conglomeration Authority—whose special operatives have abducted her—that she will be willing to act as an emissary in their name, as the million-ship armada is an unpredictable factor far beyond the technological capabilities of the Conglomeration. Any conflict with this elemental force is a frightening prospect, hence their desire to exert some sort of influence over it. Yet it soon becomes clear that neither Deal nor the Armada can be controlled. The Armada has an agenda, one which parallels Annelida Deal’s own desire—to enforce peace throughout the universe, by violence if necessary—and they find it so very necessary.
Meanwhile, the crew of the Trouble Dog have resumed their vocation as a rescue ship, oblivious to the danger the Marble Armada will soon pose. Their mission—rescue the crew of Lucy’s Ghost, a ship crippled by an unseen force during an illegal salvage operation of an ancient generation ship. Forced to flee Lucy’s Ghost for the relative safety of the relic, the crew soon discover that their refuge is fraught with its own perils. During the course of the mission Trouble Dog and her crew of misfits will find their abilities stretched to the limit, attempting to preserve the lives of the crew of Lucy’s Ghost from an extra-dimensional threat, and their own from the overzealous Fleet of Knives.
Fleet of Knives, the second novel in Gareth L. Powell’s “Embers of War” trilogy, consists of three parallel stories: Ona Sudak/Annelida Deal’s ascent to leader of an alien armada of immense power, dealing peace from the barrel of a gun; Sal Konstanz and the crew of the Trouble Dog, attempting to regain their sense of purpose after the events of the previous novel; and that of Johnny Schultz and the crew of Lucy’s Ghost as they deal with both a deadly alien menace and an unexpected addition to their crew. As in the first instalment, the story is told in short, cinematic chapters, from various character viewpoints, allowing the reader into their minds as they react to the events around them. It’s a very effective technique that gives the reader an intimate and immediate insight into their motivations.
Once she allies herself with the Marble Armada and sanctions their mission, Ona Sudak has effectively transitioned from the troubled anti-hero of the first novel to a villain on par with the worst in history, and honestly, it wasn’t much of a journey. No longer the troubled leader reluctantly following orders she knows to be criminal in the hope of shortening a war, Sudak becomes a zealot, willing to commit atrocities if she thinks the end result warrants them. She is so determined to enact her ideology—the idea of “Peace through War”—that she willingly overrides the basic morality limiting our baser instincts. It’s the “greater good” fallacy zealots tell themselves to excuse their actions. Her principles have become so compromised that she’s willing to have the Armada destroy anything or anyone that might possibly engage in violence—utterly blind to the irony of her actions.
As for Trouble Dog and crew, until Sudak’s actions catch up to them, they spend the novel attempting to heal from their first experience with the Marble Armada, complicated by competing personalities and coping mechanisms. Sal still doubts her ability to lead her fractured crew, yet pours herself into the rescue mission, fully aware that her crew are all damaged in some form or another. Preston Menderes, their replacement medic, is barely competent, yet striving to become the man he claimed to be while applying for the position. Nod the mechanic is preoccupied with its own secrets, and Trouble Dog is still contemplating its place in the universe. Then there’s the tactical officer, Alva Clay.
I really found Alva Clay quite obnoxious in the first novel. Her disdain for Sal was unwarranted, her attitude entirely unprofessional, and she was an utterly miserable character. At the time I guessed that it was a result of PTSD, but not really having a concrete explanation besides “War is Hell” made it hard to empathize. In Fleet of Knives, she’s still miserable, but Powell deftly explains why with a brief mention of the daughter and husband she lost during the war and how she cannot move past her grief. He then gives her a redemptive moment near the climax of the novel, absolving her past behaviour in a spectacularly heroic moment.
Sal Konstanz is as easy to empathize with as Alva Clay is not. She’s no longer so desperate to prove herself a leader worthy of her crew, but she yearns for a family to replace the one taken from her and is willing to settle for Trouble Dog’s crew of misfits. Luckily, in Trouble Dog she has a partner who yearns for the same thing, a crew to protect while it serves penance for its past as a weapon of war. Together, they form a family, however damaged and messy.
Powell has always infused his stories with a strong sense of family, and this is very much evident in both Embers of War and Fleet of Knives. He also utilizes the idea of unexpected consequences, whether it be small scale in the case of the crew of Lucy’s Ghost ill fated attempt at piracy, or universally in that of Ona Sudak, whose actions result in very much the opposite of what she intends. The overarching theme of this story is a thinly veiled criticism of interventionism. Within Ona Sudak’s story we see analogies to the many disastrous interventions throughout history that began with subjectively good intentions but then devolved into chaos, such as Vietnam, or more recently, the Iraq war.
I’ve managed to get this far without really discussing the extradimensional threat, the “Big Bad” the Marble Armada was created to oppose, and that’s simply because it turns out to the be one negative aspect of the novel. We’re in the second act of three, and these creatures and their motivations are still unclear. I’m assuming the story is building to a final conflict of sorts with this threat, but it’s the one aspect of the story so far that remains elusive. We know the motivations of all the protagonists except the ones that will foreseeably be the major foe in the third act, Light of Impossible Stars.
Like every great second act, Fleet of Knives ends on a dark note, but with a glimmer in the distance of possibility and hope. Trouble Dog and her crew are fleeing the expanding conflict, but they know of a place of refuge, where they will be safe while they try to solve the problem of both the Marble Armada and the ancient evil they were created to fight.
I’ll end with this—the tale of Trouble Dog and her misfit crew feels like a microcosm within a greater “Emberverse”* Powell is constructing and will hopefully continue beyond the trilogy. His universe has great potential for exploration, akin in scale to Iain M. Banks Culture series or James S.A. Corey’s (Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) Expanse. We as readers would be lucky to explore the Emberverse with him.
Gareth L Powell won the BSFA award for best novel in 2013 for Ack-Ack Macaque and again in 2019 for Embers of War. He maintains a website at garethlpowell.com
*not to be confused with S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse “Change World” series.