Review: LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS by Gareth L. Powell

Book Reviews

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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Review: FLEET OF KNIVES by Gareth L. Powell

Book Reviews

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
LOVED IT

***Spoilers ahoy for EMBERS OF WAR – read the review here***

FLEET OF KNIVES is even better than its predecessor. And if you saw my glowing review of EMBERS OF WAR, you know that’s no mean feat.

Following the events of the previous book, the House of Reclamation calls on Sal Konstanz and the Trouble Dog’s crew to rescue a freighter that’s crashed on the edges of human-inhabited space; Ona Sudak faces the death penalty following trial for her crimes at Pelapatarn; and with her help, the Marble Armada makes a momentous decision with galaxy-spanning consequences that Sal, Trouble Dog and her crew can’t ignore.

As epic and thrilling as the first instalment was, Fleet of Knives ups the ante to eleven. The Marble Armada aren’t quite what they seemed and, despite coming to the aid of our protagonists in the previous book, could now present a threat on a scale previously unseen.

The plot is tight and gripping, the chapters are short and the pace is fast. Gareth doesn’t mess around; his prose is crisp and incisive, not an ounce of fat on it, and yet it remains emotive and elegant.

We get more character development here too, and Gareth’s characters are some of the strongest I’ve read in sci-fi. Sal’s relationship with Alva Clay is explored in more depth, Trouble Dog wrestles with what it means to have a conscience and Ona Sudak is cast in an entirely new light, even given what we already knew about her. We also get the addition of a new cast of characters, Johnny Shultz and the crew of the Lucy’s Ghost. I was initially worried about this, as introducing new POV characters into an established world isn’t always done well.

I shouldn’t have worried. Course I shouldn’t. Gareth is a master of character-driven narrative; I had an immediate affinity with Shultz and his crew and felt myself rooting for all of them during the horrific plight they face while awaiting rescue by Sal and the gang.

Meanwhile, Embers of War hinted at gargantuan creatures inhabiting the hypervoid, but it was downplayed, passed off as a by-product of the evolutionary tendency of humans to pick shapes out of nothingness. But the Lucy’s Ghost is attacked by a large beast in the hypervoid and the Marble Armada hint at unseen enemies beyond our dimension attracted by death and destruction. Now, I’m not so sure those creatures are imaginary…

What I love about Fleet of Knives is that it doesn’t sit back, it builds on the foundations Gareth laid in Embers of War and propels itself forward to break new ground, upping the stakes and introducing an additional layer of cosmic horror that subtly pervades the entirety of this book without distracting from the main story.

Fleet of Knives is an incredible book. Gareth Powell has written a thrilling space opera that is simultaneously fun, horrifying, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and full of elegant prose. A worthy successor to Embers of War, this series continues to be some of the best science fiction out there right now.

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Interview with Gareth L. Powell

Interviews

Hi Gareth, welcome to Parsecs & Parchment and thanks so much for doing a Q&A with us. Your current EMBERS OF WAR series is some of my favourite science fiction out there right now, could you tell us a bit about it?

Embers follows the fortunes of a number of characters who were involved in an interstellar war as they struggle to come to terms with their experiences. One of these is a decommissioned warship named Trouble Dog, who has accidentally grown a conscience.

And for a series featuring multiple alien races and galaxy-spanning interdimensional conflict, your characters deal with some deeply personal issues, such as coping with guilt and striving for redemption. How important is it for you to ground your characters like this in such a vast and complicated setting?

I wanted to place characters with literary depth into a pulp setting. I have never seen any reason why science fiction can’t explore our shared human experience to the same depth as mainstream literature.

And the sentient spaceship Trouble Dog is just as deep as any human character. How much fun did you have writing Trouble Dog?

Trouble Dog is a very conflicted character, constantly torn between her newly emerging conscience and her in-built function as an instrument of war. That made her huge fun to write, because in every situation you’re never quite sure which part of her will rise to the surface. And also because she’s struggling with those feelings of wanting to know where she belongs, to which we can all relate.

A lot of male authors write notoriously bad female characters, but Embers of War features a diverse cast of well-rounded, fully realised women. How do you think you avoid writing the caricatures many male writers are guilty of?

I observe, I don’t assume. All the women I know are strong, well-rounded individuals. They don’t behave like the wilting damsels of 1950s B movies. So, when I sit down to write, the characters in my imagination are every bit as real and fully formed as those I know in real life. I also think (and this sounds pretentious-as-hell when I say it aloud) that I’m quite in touch with my feminine side. I don’t see women as different or somehow foreign. We’re all human underneath. And to be honest, if you can write from the perspective of an alien from Alpha Centauri, you should be able to write from the perspective of another member of your own species!

Well said! Do you have any books you’re currently raving about, one you’d recommend we all read?

I’ve read several great books recently, and would certainly recommend Noumenon by Marina Lostetter, Atlas Alone by Emma Newman, and Velocity Weapon by Megan O’Keefe.

Awesome, I’ll add them to my list! You have a reputation as The Nicest Man on Twitter. What motivates you to be such a positive force in the community?

There’s so much negativity online that I just got fed up with it all and decided to try to tip the balance a little more towards the light. So, I started offering to help people by answering questions and providing encouragement. And my followers really seem to have appreciated that. I’m a great believer that what you put out into the world comes back to you; so, if you want more positivity in your life, try radiating some.

Well thank you for radiating so much positivity. Finally, can you give any hints about what we can expect from the final instalment of the series, LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS?

More epic space battles; a new love interest for Sal Konstanz; and a visit to Nod’s home world!

I can’t wait! Thanks again Gareth, it’s been an honour to talk to you.

EMBERS OF WAR and FLEET OF KNIVES are out now and the forthcoming LIGHT OF IMPOSSIBLE STARS is available for pre-order.