I had a blast with the first volume in Jim C. Hines's 'Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse' series, 'Terminal Alliance', perhaps more for its serious space opera than its overt humour. Hines is a funny man and I laughed a lot during that read, but he's not Douglas Adams even when he tries to be.
This second book is more serious than the first and it's just as engaging, as fast-paced and, well, as occasionally laugh-out-loud. The humorous parts are mostly ephemeric introductions to chapters, tied up in wordplay or situational in nature, playing to the ludicrous grounding for this series.
Long story short, First Contact didn't go well for us. The Krakau visited to ask us to join their galactic alliance and accidentally turned the entire human race into feral savages. They can't cure us, but they have figured out how to re-birth us as supersoldiers who can't feel pain, so we have a part to play in that alliance. The catch is that they never owned up to that grand accident, spinning a yarn about how we destroyed ourselves.
Much of the point of the first book was for Marion Adamopoulos, known as Mops, through a convoluted but very fun set of adventures, to discover the truth. I looked forward to seeing what she'd do with that knowledge in book two and it isn't what I thought it would be, well, not entirely.
She begins by picking up a contact and escaping from the trap set around her. Because this is a) space opera and b) a Jim C. Hines novel, simply picking up a contact is a wild and wacky adventure. I particularly appreciated this one, in which Mops and her rebel crew on the EMCS Pufferfish visit a biorefinery operation run by Quetzalus aliens in one of the lungs of a giant space whale hibernating during the thirty-year journey from Tixateq 1 to Tixateq 2 so that it can mate.
What Mops does best, beyond confound expectations, is to improvise in strange ways drawn from her background as a janitor on the same EMCS Pufferfish that she now captains. Improvising an escape from the lungs of a space whale is a true joy and a great example of why these books work so well. Needless to say, it's only the first escape of many that she's tasked with conjuring up during the course of this novel.
The general sweep of it involves Mops and a few members of her team visiting the planet Earth, a notably dangerous place in this future, because what she gets from the contact is intelligence about experimentation being done on the feral human population by a Krakau called Fleet Admiral Belle-Bonne Sage.
I should add here that Hines's naming conventions are glorious. The Krakau, who are rather like three-tentacled squid, take human names from our only universal language, music. Belle-Bonne Sage is far deeper a reference than Admiral Pachelbel Canon but a welcome and ironic one.
Rebirthed humans, on the other hand, take their new names from history, not having a clue who previously owned them or what gender they happened to be. Hence that initial escape from the space whale involves Mops, her crew members Marilyn Monroe (who's male) and Vera Rubin (female) outwitting Battle Captain Steve Irwin of the EMCS Box Jellyfish and Lt. Michael Jackson (both female), while hindered by the discovery that their contact is a Prodryan spy named Advocate for Violence.
These four make it to Earth, along with their most volatile colleague, Wolf (for Wolfgang Mozart, female), but lose their shuttle in the process so are stranded. Their mission is to track down an apparent non-feral human, maybe the product of Admiral Sage's experimentation, and figure out a way back off the planet. That their time on Earth is far more involved than that is clear from the outset but the revelations are excellently handled.
I enjoyed this for much the same reasons as the first book, but more so, as less of the humour gets in the way of the story. The core plot isn't funny in the slightest and it's life and death to Mops and the other humans that we follow through it. The humour in the names, situations and odd comments lightens the tone magnificently and really doesn't need the little asides in between chapters, which are meant to be overtly funny. Sure, I giggled at a few of these but they need to be here even less than in the first book.
It's telling that it's not the humour that stayed with me the deepest from 'Terminal Alliance' and it won't be from this one either. From the standpoint of comedy, it's great that the leads are janitors and cleaning technicians thrust into the roles of heroes and rebels, but it's even better that they happen to be rebirthed humans too, scientifically changed by an alien race to be intelligent as an attempt to save our species.
What this means is that their worldview is based on gratitude to the Krakau and that drives their service under them on Alliance ships. The discovery that everything they've been taught is, at best, spin and, at worst, outright lies must be soul-destroying. There's more to it than that, but this book, even more than the last, is a quest for truth, a search for identity and a re-evaluation of what humans, natural or re-birthed, mean to the universe at large. That's the scale we're working at here.
I adore Mops. She's a wildcard within the universe she inhabits but she's a lynchpin to our story and the other characters in it. It's others who grow here, not least Wolf, who really comes into her own, and, surprisingly, the Prodryan spy, Advocate of Violence, because of the mindset of his species. He's helping these humans because he sees their work as key to undermining the Krakau and their Alliance, but to be Prodryan means to kill anyone not Prodryan so he has every intention to eventually murder everyone he happens to be currently helping. That he tells them this more than once merely helps to build his character and that of his species.
These books may look like throwaways with their wacky reasons for being and their wildly non-conventional approach to space opera, but they're far more substantial than they appear. I'm very much looking forward to the third in the series and not for the reasons of humour. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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