Fleet of Knives by Gareth L Powell

Titan, 2019, 401 p.

 Fleet of Knives cover

As last year, Powell’s is the first of this year’s BSFA Award nominees for best novel that I have read. Like the previous instalment in Powell’s projected trilogy (see link above) it is again a multi-viewpoint narrative. Most of these are familiar from Embers of War; war criminal turned poet turned condemned prisoner Ona Sendak, ship’s captain Sal Konstanz, his ship Trouble Dog’s AI brain, its Druff engineer Nod – now accompanied by thirteen offspring. There is a new viewpoint character called Johnny Schultz, (“lucky” Johnny Schultz,) captain of a trading vessel on the shady side of things, plus a sole chapter from the viewpoint of Trouble Dog’s sister ship, Adalwolf.

The Marble Armada which our motley crew liberated from five thousand years of confinement in the trilogy’s previous instalment causes Sendak to be rescued at the point of her execution by a Conglomeration army detachment. For some reason the Armada needs a biological identity to authorise their actions. It is in this scene that the first of many gratuitous acts of violence in the book occurs.

Schultz’s ship, Lucy’s Ghost, is about to sweep out of the hypervoid to “salvage” a derelict Nymtoq ship, the Restless Itch, when it is attacked by an entity invisible to the ship’s sensors, causing it to crash into the Itch on reentering real space. Schultz’s crew is forced to board the Itch for shelter and await rescue. Konstanz and Trouble Dog’s crew respond to the distress call.

Meantime the Armada launches an attack on any armed vessel or military outpost everywhere in the Human Generality apparently in the name of preventing any further war and killing. There is an attempt at some moralistic justification for this orgy of destruction (“‘We act to preserve life…. By destroying the means to wage war. Only when war is impossible will life be safe,’”) but any such is of necessity tenuous. In any case it seems the Armada – by now dubbed the Fleet of Knives of the book’s title – fears that widespread war may bring down the unwelcome attention of aliens from the higher dimensions. (Some cognitive dissonance here, surely?)

Inside Itch, Schultz and his crew (now accompanied by Lucy, an avatar of the ship’s human-derived brain housed in a cloned body appearing twelve years old) are beset by a horde of implacable metallic-carapaced creatures which resemble crayfish, and thus have to flee for their lives. The arrival of Trouble Dog is swiftly followed by Sendak and three Armada ships demanding surrender.

Konstanz and Schultz reflect on the inevitable deaths within their crews with regret but these and other attempts at humanising them are unconvincing, appearing bolted on, almost as a chore for the author to pay lip service to. As characters they do not breathe.

The book is riddled with other infelicities. The crayfish provide their interval of conflict and then the narrative seems to forget them. We are (twice) told Trouble Dog displaces ten thousand tons. I could not have quibbled with ‘massed ten thousand tons’ (mass does not depend on environment) but how can a spaceship displace anything? Its working environment is a vacuum in which, by definition, there is nothing to displace. ‘Normal’ ships of course displace their equivalent tonnage of water. Restless Itch has a number of convenient parallel tunnels for Trouble Dog to hide in and then escape through, Trouble Dog itelf refers to Sendak’s Armada ship as 88,573 but had not at that point been told its name. There are also too many references to things familiar to twenty-first century readers which would most likely have no meaning for the inhabitants of this book – and therefore jar as part of their story – for disbelief to remain suspended. And remorseless metallic, cannibalistic crustacean lookalikes? Come on, guys.

This novel will not get my vote.

Pedant’s corner:- milleniums (millenia,) momentarily (means ‘for a moment’, not ‘in a moment’,) maw (x3 it’s not a mouth,) “if worse came to worst” (does make more logical sense but in the past this phrase was always, ‘if the worst came to the worst’,) crawfish (previously ‘crayfish’, but ‘crawfish’ from hereon in,) “I fancied I could almost hear the ‘whoosh’ as the entangled wreckage of both ships passed scant metres from our bows” (it was in space, there would have been no ‘whoosh’, and only one bow,) epicentre (centre.)

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