Gareth L. Powell brings his EMBERS OF WAR trilogy to a satisfying conclusion with Light of Impossible Stars (2020). You’ll need to read Embers of War and Fleet of Knives first. There will be some spoilers for those novels in this review.
When we left Captain Sal, she had just brought a few new crewmates aboard Trouble Dog: Captain Johnny Shultz, who lost his ship to ferocious dragon- and crab-like aliens; one of his crew with whom he had just begun a romantic relationship; and Lucy, the ship’s avatar in human form. Captain Sal had also just suffered two great losses. One was the death of someone important to her. The other is her donation of one of her eyes to Trouble Dog because the dragon things are not detectable with Trouble Dog’s sensors — only with the human eye.
Armed with Captain Sal’s eyeball … (well, that’s an awkward way to put it, but anyway … ) Trouble Dog is aiming for an area of space called “The Intrusion” where they believe they’ll be able to hide from the dragon things and from the Fleet of Knives, an alien fleet captained by Ona Sudak. The Fleet of Knives is in the process of destroying all of the human ships they can find. Their Machiavellian thought process, with which they easily convinced Sudak to join them, was that the destruction of human ships would eventually bring about peace because humans wouldn’t have anything to fight with. Their efforts, though, have not only resulted in the deaths of the thousands of people aboard the ships, but also the planet-bound humans who rely on the supply chains that are now broken.
The Intrusion is a strange place; it’s where the physics of two universes collide. It’s near the Intrusion that we meet a new point-of-view character, a young woman named Cordelia who was an orphan until her previously unknown father showed up to make her the captain of his ship. He has secrets which he passes along to Cordelia — secrets that may hold the key to saving humanity. But everyone will have to make sacrifices.
Each of the EMBERS OF WAR novels has been a pleasant read with some likeable characters and exciting scenes (especially in book two, Fleet of Knives), but with each novel it becomes clear that the story has been unfocussed all along. Rather than well-choreographed plot twists, the unexpected shifts in location and purpose and the addition of new (and underdeveloped) characters make it feel like Powell is making it up as he goes along. For example, we had never heard of the Intrusion until the end of the second book. And those cool planets in The Gallery that I mentioned in my review of the first book have never shown up again. And Cordelia, who turns out to be crucial for saving humanity, has only been introduced in this final volume. On their own, these things wouldn’t be much of a problem — it’s fine for the author to hold back information, add and drop locales and characters, shift focus, and make up new stuff as needed — but there are too many examples of this and, combined with the characterization issue, it becomes significant.
As for the characters, I was looking forward to getting to know Johnny Shultz and his girlfriend (whose main characteristic seems only to be that she has an eyebrow piercing) better, but they were mostly written out of the story until the plot needed them to make another sacrifice. That’s too bad because Johnny’s experiences in Fleet of Knives were life-shattering and it would have been good to see him work through his PTSD. This issue was addressed, but shallowly. Similarly, I expected to feel more from Sal, who has suffered two significant losses. We see her mourn these a bit, but then we move on. There’s a transgender character who is also barely developed and, therefore, feels tossed in to check off the diversity box.
My biggest issue with characterization, though, is Ona Sudak. In Fleet of Knives it was really difficult to believe in her treason to the human race. The argument was so obviously flawed. And then, when someone else gives her a different argument in Light of Impossible Stars, her mind is too easily swayed again. This, along with Cordelia’s extraordinary powers, made the eventual outcome feel too easily delivered.
So, while the EMBERS of WAR series has some problems, I still found it to be a pleasant read. I recommend it with some reservations to readers who enjoy space opera. Check out the audio versions produced by Blackstone Audio. They’re narrated by a small cast and they do a great job.