Embers of War, the first volume of Gareth Powell’s space opera saga, brought to my attention a new series that looked more than promising both in narrative scope and in writing quality, but it’s with this second book, A Fleet of Knives, that I became even more invested in the story as it raised the overall stakes in a major way, turning into a breathless, compelling read that cost me several hours of missed sleep as I kept promising myself “just one more chapter”….
The background: a galaxy still recovering from the aftermath of a devastating war and looking for peace and stability, which are nonetheless hard to find. In Embers of War we met several key players in this scenario: Sal Konstanz, a ship’s captain from the House of Reclamation, a peaceful organization devoted to rescuing endangered spacers; Annelida Deal, former commander of the fleet that put an end to the war by ordering a heinous act of genocide, and hiding under the assumed identity of poet Ona Sudak; and the sentient ship Trouble Dog, once part of that attacking fleet and now working for the House of Reclamation to expiate its sins. At the end of the first book, Trouble Dog and its crew managed to avoid a rekindling of the old conflict, while waking a million-ships-strong alien fleet from its millennial slumber: the Marble Armada, this is the collective name for these knife-shaped ships – hence the book’s title – had been tasked by its creators to uphold the peace and by rousing it Trouble Dog set in motion the events portrayed in A Fleet of Knives.
Captain Konstanz and her crew are dealing with the traumas sustained in the course of their last mission, especially the captain who feels guilty both for the loss of a valued officer and for the way one of her decisions affected the ship’s newest crewmember: when a request for help comes their way, the interpersonal balance aboard Trouble Dog is a very delicate one indeed. For her part, Ona Sudak has been tried and convicted for her war crimes and as the day of her execution approaches, a commando frees her from the prison and takes her where the Marble Armada is stationed: the sentient alien fleet is ready to comply with its mandate – prevent any kind of war by taking away the means to do so – and therefore it needs a leader who is prepared to act with dispassionate callousness – and who better than the person who destroyed an entire world?
The third major plot point focuses on a group of new characters: the merchant ship Lucy’s Ghost is maneuvering toward a derelict Nymtoq generation vessel, now abandoned, to reclaim all salvageable items in the hope of shoring up the finances of the crew and its captain, “Lucky” Johnny Schultz: attacked by a trans-dimensional entity, Lucy’s Ghost suffers heavy damage and the survivors are forced to repair to the Nymtoq ship while waiting for help from the House of Reclamation. Their problems go from worrisome to deadly when they must fight for their lives in a vessel swarming with nightmarish creatures coming from the same trans-dimensional fissure that disgorged their attacker.
If all of the above were not disturbing enough, the Marble Armada, led by Ona Sudak whose guilt feelings and scruples seem to evaporate all too quickly in the wake of her newfound power, launches on a sort of holy “war to end all wars” by destroying everyone who dares to oppose it: the ships’ twisted logic about the application of violence in the present to eradicate it in the future offers a chilling, if enthralling, prospect for the series’ next developments and the terrifying consequences for a humanity driven to remain planet-bound to maintain the peace – a peace enforced at gunpoint….
Where the previous book introduced the main players of this saga and set the background for it, A Fleet of Knives moves to the next level by blending action and characterization in a seamless and gripping way: Trouble Dog and its crew are dealing with various degrees of PTSD and it’s both sad and fascinating to see how they react to it and how they deal with each other while trying to still be effective as a rescue ship, to perform the good, selfless deeds that now more than ever are their main reason to go on. And amid such turmoil, the crewmember who shines the brightest is the alien engineer Nod: I already commented, in my previous review, about how delightful a character he is, but here I looked forward to his chapters and loved his simple, but heartfelt, way of looking at his broken family as something that could – must – be repaired. Because fixing things is Nod’s life and joy and his philosophy does not contemplate the impossibility of mending something in need of repair.
Trouble Dog arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: once it was part of a “pack” of ships whose components included human and canine DNA, so that now it misses that pack and the sense of belonging it offered, until it realizes that it can find it right here, with its crew, the family it needs to keep safe and protected – at any cost. One of the best details of these novels comes from the ships’ avatars, which manifest as human beings changing their appearance according to the circumstances and therefore expressing a sort of emotional statement from A.I.s who are not devoted to absolute logic: and so we are treated to the many incarnations in which Trouble Dog appears to its crewmates, or the various little-girl manifestations of Lucy’s Ghost, its component brain cells coming from a dying child whose father choose to preserve her as a ship’s interface many years back, and therefore expresses itself as a combination of young innocence and long-standing wisdom. On this note it’s interesting to note that the interface A.I. from the Marble Armada chooses to appear not as a human being but as a huge bear, and given the fleet’s ultimate goal this is a disturbing consideration indeed…
These interesting characters – even the less savory ones, like Ona Sudak – are complemented by a compelling narrative that’s part mystery, part action and part moral debate on the price of peace and the ways to implement it, opening a completely new chapter in the story as it steers toward the brewing galactic conflict, the eventual resistance to the Armada’s overwhelming advance and the new, terrifying danger represented by the inter-dimensional creatures roaming in space. To say more would mean spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of this series, one whose next book I more than look forward to reading.