It’s with the third installment of the Embers of War series that I was able to see how carefully – and shrewdly – Gareth Powell has been building this story, adding information in narrative “concentric circles” that little by little expanded our view of this universe and of the stage where the final confrontation was destined to happen.
In the first book of the trilogy, Embers of War, we met the sentient ship Trouble Dog and its crew, working for the House of Reclamation, an interstellar organization dedicated to helping endangered spacers; as the galaxy looked to be on the verge of another devastating conflict, the discovery of a mysterious portal to a different dimension led toward a slumbering fleet of automated ships, the Marble Armada, and to its awakening from a long sleep. In book 2 the real purpose of the Marble Armada was revealed: they were built by an ancient race, the Hearthers, to fight against the Scourers, vicious dragon-like creatures from another dimension and their crab-like minions; the Armada’s solution to this threat, since the Scourers are attracted by fighting, became to relieve humanity of its means of waging war, forcing them at gunpoint to surrender the ships insuring commerce and survival across the galaxy and viewed by the Armada as the means to wage war.
As this third volume opens, Trouble Dog, its crew and some survivors they gathered along the way, are trying to hid from the Armada while they deal with diminishing power reserves and a few grievous losses. Meanwhile, near the space phenomenon called The Intrusion – a point of contact between two universes – young Cordelia Pa ekes out a meager living as an alien artifact scavenger on the Plates, a peculiar artificial world made out of connected flat surfaces and possibly a remnant of the Hearther civilization. A sudden, significant change in her life will bring Cordelia to learn the secrets hidden in her past and will put her at the center of humanity’s double struggle against the Marble Armada and the ravaging Scourers.
On the whole, the Embers of War trilogy is a successful mix of action, intriguing characterization and thought-provoking concepts: this third book might appear far too short for the great amount of ideas it introduces, and some of the characters suffer for it – particularly those of Johnny Schultz and his surviving crew, who were introduced in book 2 and are allowed little space here – but where Light of Impossible Stars excels is in showing the epic conflict at its roots through the point of view of the people enmeshed in it, gifting the story with the kind of intimate flavor that is very rare in space opera, where technology and the description of battles often grab the lion’s share of the page count.
The “new entry” Cordelia is a likable character: a loner, apart from her step-brother, looked on with wariness because of her peculiar appearance, she has learned self-sufficiency at an early age and this trait serves her well once she leaves the Plates embarking on a journey toward the unknown that will reveal her true nature and the meaning of her weird connection with Plates’ technology. I liked Cordelia and her inner steely core that belies the outward appearance of the street urchin, and I appreciated the way she met each new challenge, ultimately embracing her nature: there is a passage where she makes a defiant statement about that by enhancing her singularity through a bold haircut, a way to tell the world “Yes, that’s what I am. So what?”, and I greatly appreciated her for it.
But of course it’s the “core group” of characters that received my undivided attention, the sentient ship Trouble Dog and her crew. Trouble Dog has been growing as a character from the very beginning and here we see how much she has gained both emotionally and as an evolving creature. Many of her statements are expressed through her interface avatar, whose changing appearance and dress mode offer both an indication of her feelings and some much-needed lightness in a dire situation. Captain Sal Konstanz is a delightfully layered character, and probably the one undergoing more transformations than anyone else: transitioning from war veteran, appalled by the bloodshed of the Pelapatarn massacre, to dedicated commander of a relief vessel from the House of Reclamation, she had tried to give meaning to a life beset by grief and loss, only to find herself pushed again into the role of military commander to protect her ship from the aggression of the Armada and of the Scourers. She always tries to project a though façade to the world, but she’s torn by very human insecurities, and that’s the trait that most endeared her to me: she might be able to tap her inner strength when necessary, but it’s through her very human, very fallible insecurities that we see the real, very relatable person she is.
Last but not least, I would like to dedicate a special mention to the alien engineer Nod: in the two previous books I had the chance to appreciate the weird-looking Druff whose dedication to the ship and its well-being, enhanced by a peculiar expressive form, is nothing short of charming, but in this third volume of the saga we learn more about his species, the reason for their commitment to the task at hand and their underlying philosophy, and it’s a discovery as delightful as any interaction with these alien creatures who in the end appear much more human than the humans themselves. And let’s not forget that here Nod is tailed by a number of his offsprings who give the word “cute” a whole new shade of meaning… 🙂
Where this story stands on the solid narrative basis of a growing interstellar conflict and its ominous implications, its strength comes from the portrayal of the characters’ feelings, the often devastating consequences of personal loss and of the anguish and sorrow that accompany it: these issues are treated with a rare compassionate lucidity that adds a layer of poignancy to a beautifully written exploration of the human (and not only human…) soul.
Light of Impossible Stars seems to be the conclusion of the saga, but there are still several narrative avenues that could be explored, and if Mr. Powell will decide to keep telling the story of Trouble Dog & Co. I will be more than happy to jump on board for more.