Jim C. Hines has been on my radar for a long time, but I haven’t actually read any of his books until now! When I saw this on NetGalley, I was intrigued. I know Hines mostly as a fantasy writer, so I was curious to see how his science fiction would be. Turns out Hines’ Terminal Alliance reminds me a lot of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe.
Side note: This book was published in early November, but I was only approved towards the end of last month.
Terminal Alliance is set in a future where humanity has only recently been rescued from a self-inflicted “feral” virus by the Krakau, squid-like aliens who have formed a loose confederacy of worlds. Humans are infants compared to most species in the galaxy now: the Krakau are slowly “reawakening” as many feral humans as possible, but they’ve had to reassemble human culture and history from our spotty records. So all the humans alive take their names from historical figures. The protagonist is Marion Adamopoulos, or Mops, her name chosen after the scientist responsible for the virus that wiped out her species. Mops is the chief janitor—yes, janitor—aboard the EMC Pufferfish. But when a bioweapon takes out the Krakau in charge and renders everyone except Mops’ janitorial team (and one other alien comrade) feral again, it’s up to Mops and her janitor squad to save the day.
It sounds tongue-in-cheek, I know, and in some ways it is. In other ways, it’s devastating and heartbreaking.
I mean, Hines has essentially created a universe in which humanity has no real connection to the past and no real future. Mops might be a fan of Jane Austen’s work, but she probably lacks a coherent grasp of the context of what Austen was writing. And because there are so few reborn humans, and they are essentially dependent on the Krakau, humanity’s position in the galaxy is tenuous at best. No amount of situational comedy is going to soothe this wound. But, it might contribute to a very enjoyable plot.
The sinister secret conspiracy stuff is about as subtle as a panto villain, but I suppose it gets the job done. Much more enjoyable is the way that Mops and her crew aren’t that competent at what they attempt. As space janitors, they aren’t exactly a crack military squad—and it shows. They rely on their ingenuity, training, and grit—and it gets them far. But they make lots of mistakes too. Although there is much to be said for competence porn and watching Jason Statham–like action heroes just mow through crowds of bad guys, I also enjoy the obverse scenario where people are plucked out of their comfort zone and struggle realistically with adapting to their new situation.
I like how Hines uses the opening of each chapter as a way to infodump without overwhelming the reader. It works well here, because it allows him to push the plot forward very quickly while still informing us about the wider universe. I found myself anticipating these moments at the start of every new chapter, but they are never so long that they overstay their welcome.
There are a few things that didn’t quite work for me. Much of the characterization, for example, was a little too glib (this is a problem for me with Scalzi’s work too)—Wolf and Mops’ interactions are a case in point. Similarly, I just never really got to know many of the characters beyond, perhaps, Mops. They all feel fairly cookie-cutter and stock to me. Finally, the climax feels like it drags on for a while, with a lot more false starts or red herrings and exposition than there needs to be.
So, Terminal Alliance is a competent, fun, and rewarding book. I might read the sequel—it will be interesting to see what is in store for Mops and her crew now. However, it isn’t making any of my lists, so to speak.