English sci-fi author Gareth L Powell comes off his Embers of War series with a new space opera series anchored by some huge concepts. Stars and Bones, the first book of The Continuance, starts with a disastrous alien encounter and goes from there, but that encounter is the in the context of a far different future for humanity than comfortably ruining the Earth. That encounter is the precursor to an existential threat to the remnants of the human race but also leads to a deeper understanding of some of the underpinnings of the universe they find themselves in.
Seventy five years before, a massive alien intelligence, known as an angel or “the Benevolence”, saved humanity from destroying itself and the planet but did so on the condition that the planet was left alone. A fleet of one thousand giant arks, the ‘Arks of the Continuance’ was built, each run by its own superpowered artificial intelligence, and the remnants of humanity forced to board them and begin a peripatetic life of wandering through the universe. But when the book opens a survey scout has unearthed a deadly threat. An omnivorous intelligence that kills the crew and later makes its way to the fleet where it starts to deconstruct and repurpose all matter. It comes down to scout pilot Eryn and her intelligent ship Furious Ocelot to lead the search for Frank Tucker, the man who discovered faster than light travel and first communed with the angel in the hope that he can save them.
Stars and Bones is big concept space opera but many of those concepts have been used before: massive generation ships with their own personalities (cf Iain Banks) ; an alien goo that can deconstruct and absorb consciousness of organic matter and repurpose it together with reconstruction of inorganic material (cf James SA Corey); the massive ruins of alien civilisations (cf Alastair Reynolds); an immature alien intelligences who just need a guiding hand (cf more than one episode of Star Trek). That said, Powell brings a coherence to his universe and all of these ideas are well reimagined and redeployed and driven by a mystery/thriller plot with the clock ticking down to the end of humanity.
But on the other hand, it is not clear why the ‘council of ships’ puts all of its faith in Eryn and her small group, or why the alien invader takes so long to move through the fleet after decimating one giant ship in a matter of hours, or why, when Eryn is finally given a key to resolving the crisis it is hidden from her until “the right moment”. The characters are fun to spend time with, and as some are killed the stakes feel high so that the tension is kept high the action moves quickly enough to ignore some of these niggles but maybe not quickly enough for all readers.
All in all Stars and Bones is one for space opera fans. Powell delivers a pacey, action filled tale set in an interesting universe, even if it is one that draws on a range of well used space opera tropes. And given this is the first, scene setting volume in a series, Powell has left himself plenty of scope to take this series in any number of interesting directions.