-Major spoilers for Embers of War below-
Series: Embers of War (#2)
Genre: Space Opera
Publication Date: 19/02/2019
Trouble Dog and her crew are back. But while they just want to get back to work, others have very different ideas of how to help the Galaxy. Ideas that may just include wholesale slaughter. . .
Sequels are hard, but harder still is writing one that not only lives up to the first book, but surpasses it. Yet that is exactly what Powell has achieved here. Fleet of Knives builds on in its predecessor in both scope and execution, to the point that it’s a near-faultless slice of space opera.
At the end of Embers of War, Trouble Dog had awakened an ancient armada, and her crew were facing unemployment for their role in events. This book begins with something akin to a reset button. The crew keep their jobs because quite frankly, there’s no one else to do them. It’s not the immediate fallout of consequences I was expecting, I admit, but the ramifications of the first book do follow the crew. In particular, the aforementioned ancient fleet is given a purpose: Stop all conflict. A laudable goal, but one that sets them on a violent collision course with, well, just about everyone.
As before, we follow (roughly) the same ragtag group of characters as before. Sal Konstanz is back in the driving seat, trouble Dog is the seat, and the alien Nod keeps everything working. Alva Clay and Preston round out our group of heroes, while Ona Sudak finds a place in the newly-christened Fleet of Knives. There are also new faces in the form of ‘Lucky’ Johnny Schultz and his ship’s AI Lucy. It’s a wide and diverse group, with well-balanced page-time. As a general rule, I’m not overly fond of multiple first-person perspectives in a book, but Powell pulls it off elegantly. perhaps it’s familiarity with the cast, or perhaps not, but each character now feels distinct, each with a unique voice. Chapter Forty-Nine in particular is a masterclass in character building and comedic timing.
It’s common for the middle act of a trilogy to feel more like a bridge between acts than a story of its own. Hit the ground running and end on a cliffhanger is a common thing. Not only building on from book one, but building towards book three. there is an element of this in Fleet of Knives. The overarching storyline of the Fleet is not resolved, and several new spanners are thrown into the works. But there is some resolution here. The smaller arc of Trouble Dog’s efforts to do her job and rescue Johnny Schultz and his crew from a wrecked Nymtoq generation ship is tightly packed, forwarding the main storyline while also being gripping in its own right. It’s the perfect balance between episodic and serialised storytelling.
I’ve written before about my dislike of the ‘Found Families’ trope, but here Powell makes it work. The bonds between crew never feel forced, but rather are organic and natural. The same dynamic of a ship and a crew that forms the basis of so many of my favourite TV shows is present here, and its nice to see it in book form for a change. The stakes are high, the consequences dear, but the closeness of the crew is what really shines through here. Without the friendship between crewmembers, and even the ship herself, this wouldn’t be half so good a book.
While it is clearly setting up for the next instalment, Fleet of Knives is a brilliant book in its own right, and I eagerly await the next.