Saturday, June 30, 2018

REVIEW: Embers of War (book) by Gareth L. Powell

Embers of War is science fiction. From what I can tell, it's the first in a series, or possibly a trilogy.

Review:

Three years ago, Conglomeration and Outward forces were at war. One of their most terrible battles was fought on and around the planet Pelapatarn. On the orders of her superiors, Captain Annelida Deal directed Conglomeration ships to lay waste to everything on the surface of Pelapatarn. The planet's sentient jungle would die, as would hundreds of thousands of civilians and both Outward and Conglomeration troops, but Captain Deal's superiors believed that this one terrible move would end the war, and Deal agreed with them.

In the book's present, the war is indeed over, but the peace between the two sides is wary and tense at best. Sal Konstanz, formerly a member of the Outward forces and a horrified witness to the carnage at Pelapatarn, is now a member of the House of Reclamation, a politically neutral group dedicated to rescuing survivors of damaged/wrecked ships. She's the captain of the Trouble Dog, an ex-Conglomeration ship seeking to atone for the bombing of Pelapatarn.

When a passenger liner mysteriously shuts itself down, the AI equivalent of committing suicide, the Trouble Dog is the closest House of Reclamation ship available to rescue any survivors. Unfortunately, this mission has more complications than the Trouble Dog or any of her crew realizes.

I picked this one up because I'm drawn to stories with prominent AI characters in them. Trouble Dog was my favorite thing about this book, although I feel like Powell didn't go as far with her as he could have. For example, Nod kept saying how sad Trouble Dog was, something that Sal couldn't see and that Trouble Dog herself probably would have disagreed with (battleship AIs aren't supposed to feel sad about taking lives). In the book, AIs are grown from cloned human cells and, after a period of time, those organic parts sometimes bleed into their personalities more than their creators intended. Trouble Dog had clearly grown a conscience during the war and had indicated that she regretted her actions. Nod's chapters made it seem like she was maybe feeling more than she could process or fully recognize. I'm not sure the rest of the book ever confirmed that, though, and I feel like that thread eventually got dropped.

I'm not sure why the book's blurb and several reviews called this a fast-paced story. It really wasn't. Trouble Dog spent most of the book journeying to the wreck, with a couple stops here and there. I found myself thinking that at least half the people who survive shipwrecks must die of their injuries, dehydration, or starvation waiting to be rescued if it always takes House of Reclamation ships that long to arrive.

The characters and their gradually intersecting paths kept my attention well enough, despite the surprisingly drawn out journey to the downed ship. Sal battled with guilt over the death of one of her crew members and worried about what she'd do after she was thrown out of the House of Reclamation as she expected she soon would be. Ona Sudak's secret was blindingly obvious, but I looked forward to seeing what her final destination would be, as she tried to evade death/capture on a strange, planet-sized alien artifact. Ashton Childe, a Conglomeration agent desperate to be assigned somewhere cooler than the jungle he seemed fated to spend the rest of his life in, didn't interest me as much, but I at least wanted to see how he tied in with Sal, Trouble Dog, and Ona Sudak.

The book alternated between chapters from various characters' POVs (first-person, but thankfully not present tense). I didn't feel like most of the POVs were very well-differentiated, but the only one that actively annoyed me was Nod's. Nod was Trouble Dog's very alien engineer. Considering how important Nod was to Trouble Dog's continued ability to function, it was a little shocking how rarely anyone ever seemed to think of the character. I often forgot it even existed.

Even so, Nod's constant mental grumbling about the World Tree, Trouble Dog's damage, and the way no one on the ship ever thanked it for its work was kind of annoying. The part that really got to me, though, was the final chapter, where Nod thought something to the effect of "I know an important thing that I don't plan to tell anybody, but if someone thought to ask me..." Either tell them or don't, Nod. Wallowing in it like this makes you a jerk, especially if this thing you know could get people killed.

The ending was a disappointment. Trouble Dog said they were ushering in an era of "peace and diplomacy rather than a hawkish reliance on military strength" (402), but I disagreed. You know the saying "The road to hell is paved with good intentions"? That's the feeling I got from the ending, and I didn't get enough of a sense that the characters truly realized what they were unleashing. The only exception was maybe Trouble Dog, but she seemed to think the end justified the means, which was odd considering her history. Despite my worries about where Powell plans to go with all of this, I'll probably read the next book once it's out.

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