Last year, Gareth L. Powell kicked off a sci-fi space opera trilogy with his novel Embers Of War. With the middle book, Fleet Of Knives (paperback, Kindle) either out or about to come out (depending on when you read this), and the third book slated for this time next year, I spoke to him via email about what inspired and influenced this second story, how it connects to the first, as well as Ragged Alice, a horror novella that’s coming out this April.
For people who didn’t read Embers Of War, what is this series about, and when is it set?
The series is set several hundred years into the future, in the wake of a particularly nasty civil war between two human factions. Having accidentally grown a conscience, the warship Trouble Dog resigns from the navy and joins an organization dedicated to rescuing stranded travelers. However, when one rescue takes an unexpected turn, she finds herself having to fight to prevent another war.
And then what is Fleet Of Knives about and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the first book, Embers Of War?
Fleet Of Knives follows on from the events in the first book. It takes place a year later, as the Trouble Dog and her crew are sent on another rescue mission, while at home, the human race struggles to come to terms with the consequences of the first book. And anyone who has read the first book will be able to guess what those consequences are, based on the title.
When in the process of writing this series did you decide what Fleet Of Knives would be about, and what gave you the idea for it?
I conceived the trilogy as a whole, so Fleet Of Knives was always designed as the middle book — the part of the story where everything goes wrong and the heroes find their world turned upside down. Think Empire Strikes Back.
Was there any aspect of Fleet Of Knives that you ended up changing because of something you did in Embers Of War?
When I wrote Embers Of War, Fleet Of Knives existed only as a handful of paragraphs in a Word document. As soon as we signed the contract for all three books with Titan, I started work on Fleet, picking up where the first book had left off.
In the previous interview we did about Embers Of War [which you can read here], you said that while it was a space opera, you also thought it was, “more character-driven than you might expect from the term ‘space opera’.” Is that how you feel about Fleet Of Knives as well?
Fleet Of Knives is arguably even more action-packed than Embers Of War, but it’s still very closely based on the experiences and impressions of a small group of narrators — some we’ve met before, and others that are new. And each of these characters has a clear emotional arc running through the story. They grow and change, and we find out more about them.
Aside from space opera tropes, are any other genres, subgenres, or combinations of them at work in Fleet Of Knives?
There’s definitely a sense of horror that fans of Aliens or Pitch Black will recognize. there’s some military SF tropes and situations, and a large helping of philosophy. Where the first book asked questions about guilt and humanity, the second explores the notions of freedom and security, and how much of one you need to give up in order to have the other.
How about influences on this story; are there any writers, or specific stories, that were a big influence on Fleet Of Knives but not Embers Of War or anything else you’ve written?
It seems odd to say it, but the book that most influenced Fleet was Embers. When I started out writing the trilogy, I was influenced by Iain M. Banks, Ann Leckie, and about a hundred other authors. But by the time I started Fleet, the story had taken on a life and identity of its own. I had found my voice.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; were any of those a big influence on Fleet Of Knives?
As mentioned earlier, there are some scenes that were obviously influenced by movies such as Aliensand Pitch Black. And I guess you could probably throw in Cloverfield, The Thing, and Attack The Block, too. I also played the Traveler RPG and the Elite video game as I grew up in the 1980s, and they provided a background influence.
In that same earlier interview, you said the Embers Of War series was a trilogy, and that the plan was that the third and final book, Light Of Impossible Stars, would be out in February 2020. Is that still the plans?
That is still the plan. I have already written Light Of Impossible Stars and delivered it to my editor at Titan, the awesome Cath Trechman, so barring unforeseen events — alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, sharknado — it should appear in February 2020, to wrap up the story.
Cool. Now, along with Fleet Of Knives, you are also releasing a novella this April called Ragged Alice. What’s that about?
Ragged Alice follows DCI Holly Craig as she returns to her small coastal Welsh hometown after fifteen years away. She has come back to investigate a simple hit-and-run, but soon the bodies start piling up and Craig has to use her unusual talents to connect the murders to each other, and to the murder of her own mother thirty-five years before.
Ragged Alice is a horror story, which is very different from a space opera. Do you think people who enjoy Fleet Of Knives will like Ragged Alice as well, and vice versa, or do you think they’re just too different?
They are very different, but the writing is still very character-based. If people who enjoy Star Trek Discovery can also enjoy Twin Peaks then I see no reason people who enjoyed Embers Of War and Fleet Of Knives won’t also appreciate Ragged Alice.
Also, my earlier Ack-Ack Macaque books were all murder-mysteries with unusual elements. So while Ragged Alice has no talking simians, it still has my signature voice.
Was there any aspect of Fleet Of Knives that was influenced by you writing Ragged Alice around the same time? Or vice versa?
I wrote Ragged Alice after writing Fleet. I realized I had time to squeeze another book between Fleet and Light Of Impossible Stars, so I wrote Ragged Alice very quickly. The change of genre was invigorating. Kind of like going on holiday. And it helped me freshen my palette before diving into Light Of Impossible Stars.
Finally, if someone enjoys Embers Of War and Fleet Of Knives, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next while waiting for Light Of Impossible Star sto come out? Aside from Ragged Alice, of course.
I’d have to suggest my novel The Recollection. It came out from Solaris in 2011, and I’m still extremely fond of it. It was the first novel where I felt I’d found my voice — there was an earlier novel, Silversands, but it is out of print now — and it’s also a space opera featuring a talking ship and a horrifying alien threat. And a taxi driver from modern day London who accidentally drives a Land Rover 400 years into the future.