Sometimes reading science-fiction you wonder if everything has already been imagined. What more can authors mine out of space, or time, or a million civilisations or galaxies? Gareth L. Powell, for Fleet of Knives, sticks with plenty of well worn tropes and concepts for his space opera, yet within them manages to pluck out some genuinely inventive ideas blending galactic wars, AI and very gritty human conflicts.
Indeed conflict is what the entire book is constructed upon. Fleet of Knives is the sequel to Embers of War, the first of a connected series which takes place in a fictional 23rd century a long way from some of the more established sci-fi universes that explore that period. Humanity is divided across the stars and are reeling from the Archipelago War, a devastating galactic conflict within the so-called Human Generality of space which saw death, tragedy and genocide across both sides. The Embers saga begins in the shadow of that with the crew of the Trouble Dog, an artificially intelligent former warship devoted how to search and rescue missions across the Generality.
Already you can see from that description that Powell has thought out the backstory and mythology of his future world, and his prose across both books tease out more details and add further flesh to the bones of the war, the Generality, the Trouble Dog and its crew without bludgeoning you over the head with detail. We know what we need to know, when we need to know it – the rest is pure story, driven by character. Powell adopts the George R. R. Martin method of his chapters being first person around numerous main characters – such as somewhat haunted Captain Sal Konstanz, conflicted war criminal and poet Ona Sudak and the Trouble Dog itself – but he uses first person narrative to bring more of a personal touch to the story explored through these characters.
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Fleet of Knives moves at just as much of a clip as Embers of War, and in truth complements that first book very well – they would work neatly in a future compendium badged together – continuing most of the character arcs and plot strands left hanging from the first novel. You do have to read Embers of War first, or it would be highly recommended; this is very much a sequel which plays as the middle part of either a three-act story, or the next stage of an ongoing series. Powell does give you details throughout about what happened in Embers but reading Knives without having read Embers will result in a lesser reading experience, almost certainly. It’s not a sequel which takes the saga to another level of quality – it remains as consistent as the first book – but it retains the same style, swagger and pulpy science-fiction prose which swiftly draws you in. Some of it can be a little boilerplate but that’s fine – from a tonal perspective, it clicks.
What really makes this series stand out is Powell’s core idea of the Trouble Dog and the intelligent warships. He anthropomorphises machines, using avatars to give them visual personality, to such a strong extent you wish they could one day be adapted for the screen. Trouble Dog is the lens Powell uses for what is really in Knives (and Embers before it) a science-fiction morality tale about the cost of war, about the ends justifying the means, and the devastating evil of weapons of mass destruction. It’s ever a timely subject in our world of global nuclear tensions, gun crime atrocities etc… and Powell ensures his future tale, though an adventure by heart, weighs these ideas in a cosmic context. It helps you connect with the characters wrapped up with the Trouble Dog as a crew of unlikely souls form the closest thing to a dysfunctional family as they can.
In short, Fleet of Knives is a successful sequel. Nothing that reinvents the narrative wheel but it is well paced, involving, unafraid to explore philosophical and moral concepts, constructed upon a well worked out universe and backstory, and with plenty of plot and character avenues to keep the story moving for at least a couple more books.
Crucially, for a book set in outer space with plenty of unusual beings, it is decidedly human, as is Powell’s writing. That’s to be cherished right now.
Fleet of Knives is now available from Titan Books.