Liz Bourke Reviews Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Alliance, Jim C. Hines (DAW 978-0-7564-1274-6, $26.00, 368pp, hc). November 2017. Cover by Daniel Dos Santos.

One thing links the books I read for Locus this month. With one exception – Jim Hines’s Terminal Alliance – none of them were quite as entertaining as I’d hoped. Still, that’s life, right? It’s not as though they weren’t entertaining at all….

Terminal Alliance is the latest novel from Jim C. Hines, and his first foray into the field of space opera. His previous form has run strongly on the humorous side – or, when not aimed at being funny, with a deft eye to the ridiculous – and with Terminal Alliance rejoicing in the tagline “Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse,” humour is definitely on the agenda.

The alien Krakau came to Earth to invite hu­manity into an alliance of sentient species, but a plague had already killed half the species of Earth and turned the rest into near-unstoppable feral animals. It wiped out human civilisation, and turned humans into unthinking animals who eat people. When the Krakau arrived, they decided to try to fix humanity. A couple of decades on, humans aren’t what they once were, but they have a reputation as unstoppable soldiers: they’re the Krakau’s crack troops.

Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos is a lieutenant aboard the Earth Mercenary Corps Ship Puffer­fish. She has 12 years of service behind her, and she’s in charge of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team. Though she’s seen quite a few battles, her remit is keeping the drains unclogged and the pipes working. Not fighting.

When a bioweapon attack wipes out the Puff­erfish‘s Krakau command crew and turns most of Mops’ human crewmates back into feral beasts, Mops finds herself the ranking officer. Her crew consists of three sanitation crew members and a low-ranking alien technician with an addiction to videogames. None of them know how to fly the ship, but they’re about to get a crash course in “learn-or-die.” In between struggling to figure out how to keep the ship working and fend off the aggressive Prodryans, an alien race with a society entirely based around conflict, they need to solve another problem: the Krakau admiral who’s or­dered them home revealed to Mops that instead of trying to cure Mops’s re-feralised crewmates, the Krakau will euthanise them instead.

Mops, understandably, isn’t thrilled to learn this. The other humans are her crewmates and her friends, and she’s not resigned to not even trying to cure them. Rather than abandon them to their fates, she – and her small team of sanitation work­ers – set out to find the source of the bioweapon, reasoning that if they know why it turns humans back into feral unthinking animals, they might be able to find a cure, and use this information to negotiate with the Krakau.

But Mops and her team are humans in a universe where humans are universally seen as savage, unpredictable, and not that smart. Inves­tigating the source of the bioweapon when they can hardly fly their own ship is going to be tricky. Investigating the source of the bioweapon when most of the people they encounter expect them to be both very stupid and very violent is even more so. It’s hard to gain people’s trust and get information from them when they expect you to eat their faces, as it were. But Mops is determined, and she’s not about to let her people down. As she uncovers more and more information, it becomes clear – both to her and to the reader – that the story humans have been told about the plague that destroyed their civilisation is not the entire truth.

From the beginning of Terminal Alliance, you get the feeling that things have worked out a little too conveniently for the Krakau. Humans rely on them for knowledge of their history, and it’s never a good sign when the people responsible for teaching a population about their history also benefit from that population’s military prowess. One feels a certain potential for abuse is inherent in the setup. But the conspiracy – and yes, there is a conspiracy – involving the Krakau and the plague isn’t the conspiracy that the reader initially suspects. It’s a lot sorrier and more complicated than “evil alien overlords.”

Jim C. Hines can always be relied upon for vivid characterisation and tight pacing. Here, his skills with character shine. Mops is a compelling individual. With 12 years of service, she’s one of the longest-serving (and oldest) humans about the Pufferfish, and her attitude towards humanity’s unfortunate reputation is, We have to be better than that. We have to prove we’re better than that. She’s a thoughtful leader and a careful and determined officer – albeit one willing to take risks if risks are necessary. Her team – Monroe, an ex-infantry lieutenant with a lot of prosthetics; Wolf, a new recruit with more aggression than self-control; Kumar, a sanitation technician with a phobia of germs; and the videogame-addicted Glacidae tech Grom – are sketched in broad but relatable strokes. The plot rattles along, building tension incident upon incident, until we reach a downright explosive conclusion.

Terminal Alliance has the flaws of its virtues. Its humour won’t appeal to everyone, and it is a little too easy to see the galaxy’s view of humans as a racism parable with roots in reality. But it’s fast, fun, and thoroughly enjoyable space opera, and I want to read the next installment as soon as possible.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.

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