Fleet of Knives (2019) is the second book in Gareth L. Powell’s EMBERS OF WAR series and a finalist for the 2020 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Its predecessor, Embers of War, was also a Locus finalist and won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel of 2018. When I reviewed it last year, I reported that Embers of War was “pleasant but forgettable” and, sure enough, I had to refer to my notes to recall the plot. (I keep notes about the plot on all the series books I read). There will be some spoilers for that first book in this review.
We’ve got some new characters in Fleet of Knives. They are the crew of the salvage ship Lucy’s Ghost which is captained by Lucky Johnny Schultz (whose luck, it seems, has finally run out). As Lucy’s Ghost approaches a derelict spaceship which the crew hopes to scour for sellable goodies, they are attacked by a huge black-winged creature that their ship’s sensors did not detect. After Lucy’s Ghost is wrecked, they try to take refuge in the ancient ship, but it’s full of large crab-like monsters that kill off most of their remaining crew. When Trouble Dog, still captained by Sally (“Sal”) Konstanz who leads the same crew we met in Embers of War, arrives to rescue Lucy’s Ghost, they find themselves in the fight of their lives.
There are some other new characters on Trouble Dog. I don’t want to tell you who/what they are, but let me just say they’re adorable and a welcome, even comedic, addition to the cast.
Meanwhile, public pressure has resulted in a death sentence for Ona Sudak, the captain who (acting on orders from higher up) destroyed a planet and its sentient forest. Just before she goes before the firing squad, she is rescued and turned over to the Marble Armada, who want a human representative to accompany them on their mission to prevent all future wars. That sounds like a noble cause, but their tactics are brutal. Ona, a scapegoated war criminal, gets caught up in the fervor.
The plot of Fleet of Knives is much more interesting (and memorable) than that of Embers of War. It’s exciting all the way through, starting with the dramatic rescue of Ona Sudak. The battle with the crab-like creatures is tense and gory. There are significant deaths and sacrifices.
Though I enjoyed the plot, I have two issues with Fleet of Knives. First is that the new characters lack some development. There are touching scenes involving them, but I didn’t feel the emotion because I didn’t know them well enough. I hope this will improve in the next book.
Second, I had a really hard time believing in the strategy of the Marble Armada and Ona Sudak’s cavalier response. This, in my opinion, is the most troubling spot for Fleet of Knives and that’s too bad because it’s the major driver of the plot. While I appreciate the Marble Armada’s claim, that sometimes we have to make sacrifices for a greater cause, there is no nuance here. Powell could have used this strategy to give us something challenging to think about It, but the Armada is so brutal that there’s no space for that.
Fleet of Knives ends with another dramatic scene aboard Trouble Dog. Things are looking pretty grim and I look forward to finding out what happens in the final installment of this trilogy, Light of Impossible Stars, which was released in February 2020.
I’ll continue to read Blackstone Audio’s fine productions of EMBERS OF WAR. They are read by several narrators who do a great job.