In ‘Embers of War’, predecessor to ‘Fleet of Knives’, we were introduced to the decommissioned intelligent warship Trouble Dog, which in a former life had been complicit in the destruction of the sentient jungle-world of Pelapatarn. This orbital strike ended the Conglomeration-Outwarder war, perhaps preventing hundreds of thousands of human deaths at the cost of a genocide of planetary proportions. Following this, Trouble Dog renounced its former ties to the Conglomeration navy and joined the House of Reclamation, an organisation devoting its considerable resources to rescue operations throughout human-colonised space. In its journey toward redemption Trouble Dog is joined by Captain Sal Konstanz, a member of the defeated Outwarders who helped rescue some of the few human survivors from Pelapatarn.
The shadow of Pelapatarn hung heavily over ‘Embers of War’, a space opera expressly concerned with redemption. Trouble Dog muses on its role at Pelapatarn, a time before it imagines it possessed a conscience; about what it is to grieve; about how it is still at heart a warship and what that truth speaks to; and whether its self-reinvention as an instrument to save lives can ever be enough. The Dog’s counterpart in that novel is Ona Sudak, a poet who – it is later revealed – is better known to humanity as Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the attack on Pelapatarn. Sudak too grapples with her conscience, but for her the question differs. Was what she ordered justified? Were the Conglomeration lives she saved worth the price that Pelapatarn paid?
The stories of the Trouble Dog and Ona Sudak collide in a star system known as the Gallery, where they independently encounter the avatar of the Marble Armada, a million-strong fleet of dormant alien warships awaiting direction. They assess Sudak and judge her unworthy: she has made no effort to make amends for what she did. But in the Trouble Dog they find a being worthy of awakening them. Seeing a warrior who has turned its back on war, a tool made to take lives which now works to save them, they ask it to give them purpose. The Trouble Dog does so, asking the Marble Armada to prevent a war like that which produced Pelapatarn from ever happening again.
As this sequel starts, Konstanz and the surviving crew of Trouble Dog are taking time out to collect themselves. The Marble Armada is, for now, placid. Konstanz expects to be discharged from the House of Reclamation following the death of a crew member due to her negligence. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Sudak is on death row, awaiting her execution by firing squad.
None of this holds. Sudak, resigned to her fate, discovers that others have something else in mind for her. The Trouble Dog and Konstanz are ordered to respond to a distress call from another human ship, the urgency of the situation overriding any other concerns. The Marble Armada breaks its silence, and in the space between stars something else has begun to stir.
‘Embers of War’ was an enjoyable space opera, at its richest when exploring those themes of redemption through the introspective moments of its well-realised characters, and in how they found solidarity with and experienced conflict between one another. Its story, replete with twists and revelations, was enjoyable though I admit to feeling a little underwhelmed by its unveiling of mysterious alien artefacts and ancient artificial intelligence. Perhaps these are just space operatic themes I’m over-familiar with, and I won’t deny the role the awoken Armada played in that novel’s culmination was a thrill.
‘Knives of War’ wisely chooses not to revisit thematic ground already trodden, concerned instead with how its cast responds to the aftermath of those redemptive arcs. This is not as neat a theme to summarise and connect between characters, but it certainly makes this second novel in what I assume will ultimately be a trilogy more interesting in its own rights than a lot of awkward middle books. The Trouble Dog revels in regaining a little of its former self. Konstanz can’t escape feeling like she has yet to pay penance for that death-by-negligence. Sudak’s new role reframes her previous arc in a potentially far more horrifying way.
The sense of mystery and reckoning with the unknown is ramped up. The chapters following a group of survivors aboard a long-abandoned generation ship improve upon the similar plight of Sudak in the warrens of the Gallery, both in terms of their environment and what they are attempting to survive. We learn more about the Marble Armada including why it exists in the first place, and this is significantly more interesting than the deus ex machina role it played in the climax of ‘Embers’. And, of course, there’s that stirring between the stars I mentioned earlier.
‘Knives’ deftly reframes what came before, weaving fresh stories by recontextualising existing threads, whilst doling out answers and questions in equal measure. It can’t entirely escape the challenges of mid-trilogy plotting, but in its thoughtful development of character and setting amid a significant payload of adventure and threat, it provided me with everything I might have asked for and more.