Fleet of Knives by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the sequel to last year's Embers of War, and the author has definitely upped his game. It's a tightly written, well paced exploration of the consequences of what happened in the first novel, and it's not an exaggeration to say that everything goes kablooie. Powell is an author who takes every character and goes for the deepest twist of the knife.
When the book opens, the sentient warship Trouble Dog and her crew are recovering in the aftermath of waking up the Marble Armada, a 5000-year-old alien fleet. The Trouble Dog, now retired, renounced her commission after her participation in the Battle of Pelapatarn, in which hundreds of thousands of people and a billion-year-old sentient jungle was destroyed. Now working for the House of Reclamation, the Trouble Dog takes on rescue missions, and is called back into service to save the trader Lucy's Ghost, which was attacked by a malevolent being out of the hypervoid, the higher dimensions used for faster-than-light travel in this universe. The crew of the Lucy's Ghost has taken refuge aboard the Restless Itch, a ten-thousand-year-old generation ship that, unbeknownst to anyone, the Lucy's Ghost had intended to cut into and strip whatever they could salvage.
This is an ancient universe, with aliens plying the stars long before humans emerged from the trees, and the author does well in portraying this sense of forgotten empires with advanced tech that comes roaring back to bite you. This is never more evident than the Marble Armada, a million-strong fleet that abruptly decides to put a stop to the human propensity for violence by taking out the means to make it, by destroying every warship and weapons factory in the human Conglomeration. This is very much a case of "the ends justify the means," and the morals and ethics of this make for some meaty discussions among the characters, even in the midst of some pretty relentless action. The theme in the last book was atonement: both seeking it and wondering if it can ever really be found. This book's theme is honor--what it means and having the strength to choose it. This theme is dealt with in various ways by each of our five viewpoint characters, and they all are given some good (or not so good, in the case of Ona Sudak) character development.
But there is another threat looming here, in a form the Marble Armada itself is afraid of, and part of which manifests during the rescue mission on the Restless Itch. This storyline has a bit of an Alien vibe, with claustrophobic hallways and chambers and deadly slime-dripping monsters looming out of the dark. It all adds up to a nail-biting thriller with the stakes raised exponentially. This series has just positioned itself in the ranks of my favorite space operas ever, and I can't wait for the concluding volume.
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