Review: LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS by Gareth L. Powell

Sal, Trouble Dog and the gang are back for the final instalment of one of my fave space opera series of all time! LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS delivers everything I’ve come to love about Gareth Powell’s writing; literary characters in a pulp setting, snappy dialogue and deep themes delivered in tight, fast-paced prose. Plus Alien references, an AI in a clown costume, Dutch cyborgs and motherfucking reality quakes! I devoured this book in a single day, delighted in every second of it and now I just need more, always more.

***Warning*** Minor spoilers for the previous books in the series. If you haven’t read them yet, oh boy you’re in for a treat. Read my reviews for EMBERS OF WAR and FLEET OF KNIVES, then just go buy this entire series.

Light of Impossible Stars picks up where Fleet left off; Captain Sal Constanz and her sentient rescue ship Trouble Dog are running out of fuel, hunted by Ona Sudak and her genocidal fleet, and speeding towards The Intrusion, an area of space both the Marble Armada and the extra-dimensional Scourers mysteriously avoid. Probably because the laws of physics turn to mush here and no one knows why. I mean, if the only safe place in the galaxy is a place no one has ever returned from and experiences reality quakes on a semi-regular basis, you get an idea of just how Up Shit Creek Without A Paddle our plucky space adventurers really are.

We also get to meet some new characters. Cordelia Pa is a young scavenger on The Plates, a series of manufactured habitable micro-worlds constructed and abandoned by the Hearthers, the alien race who unwittingly unleashed the Marble Armada and fled to The Intrusion millennia ago. Cordelia and her brother eke out a miserable living scavenging for ancient Hearther artefacts and shifting them on the black market, all the while trying to avoid the authoritarian private mercenary police that patrol City Plate Two. But when Cordelia is snatched from her home by a strange crew lead by a woman called Lomax, Cordelia begins a journey that she hopes will explain the affinity she feels with Hearther tech and the strange powers she has always harboured.

From a story-telling standpoint, Gareth Powell knows how to spin a yarn that gets its hooks straight in, no messing about. Space opera is a genre suited to fast-paced adventure and Gareth has distilled this art into a science. He writes in a way that pisses you off if you get hungry or have to go to the loo cos it means you have to put the book down. I was halfway through Light of Impossible Stars before I knew what had happened and only realised cos my stomach started screaming at me to eat something.

What I love more than anything about this series though is the characters. The character development is simply phenomenal. Sal started out as a military woman with a conscience torn to shreds by war, seeking some kind of redemption in the House of Reclamation. She wanted to save people, without any complicated moral considerations, despite knowing deep down that sometimes it might be necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelette. One of my favourite scenes in the book is when Sal reflects on how she’s been forced to change yet again in the aftermath of the new order imposed by the Marble Armada. Puts me in mind of my boy Karl Marx’s most insightful observation on the development of society: “Men make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. People have effects on the world around them and the world around them affects them right back. Sal has definitely changed since the start of the series, though everything she did made sense, both from a narrative standpoint and from what we know of her as a person. She’s changed, but still retained the core of who she is.

(P.S. for any part-time scholars of wor Karl in the audience, I do know this isn’t the point he was making in The Eighteenth Brumaire, it just made me think of it okay, chill out).

My favourite character though, was, is, and forever will remain the snarky, independent and fiercely loyal Trouble Dog. From a Carnivore-class heavy cruiser built and bio-engineered for one purpose – to kill, obliterate and destroy with no qualms or scruples – Trouble Dog has developed into someone with a complicated, and yet fundamentally moral outlook on life. There are snippets where Trouble Dog’s inner turmoil and all very human side is laid bare. The fact she is constantly trying to understand and embrace that side of her character shows how far she has come since her days as a war machine in the Conglomeration navy. Plus I just love her personality. The scene where she meets Adalwolf on the deck of a virtual reality ocean liner and arrives wearing ‘a shaggy black bob, and wrapped in a sparkly gold flapper dress, accessorising with a matching tiara and an outrageously long cigarette holder’ is just peak Trouble Dog haha.

Amidst all this there’s still a natural underlying current of serious themes that make this series simultaneously fun, pulpy and literary. Cordelia’s hostility to the prison system as a system that perpetuates the conditions that give rise to crime; Lomax’s observation that the scavengers and couriers doing the dangerous work to retrieve Hearther artefacts aren’t the ones who get rich off them; philosophical and psychological ruminations on how humans view the world (“You are capable of simultaneously occupying two contradictory standpoints? That explains so much abut your behaviour as a species”). There’s a lot of deep stuff in this book, but it’s all seamlessly part of the story, masterfully woven into the fabric of the narrative.

This is a fantastic book, an immensely satisfying and action-packed conclusion to a wonderful series. Gareth Powell is a stand-out among science fiction writers and has quickly become an auto-buy author for me. If you’ve read the previous two books and are looking forward to this, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a space opera fan and haven’t read any of the Embers of War novels yet, I can almost guarantee you’ll love these books. But for me, for now, all that remains is to say “Farewell Sal and Trouble Dog. Thanks for everything, it’s been a blast”.

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