Book Review: Terminal Alliance
Since I worked on a humorous book of my own last year, I've been actively seeking out humorous science fiction and fantasy for inspiration. So when I stumbled upon Jim C. Hines' Terminal Alliance (book one of the Janitors of the Apocalpyse series, in case you were wondering), I couldn't resist the description.
When the Krakau, a race of squidlike beings, arrived on Earth to invite humanity to an alliance, they were a bit dismayed to discover that a plague had basically turned all humans into nigh-indestructible zombies. But after a few years, they managed to "fix" us. Well, some of us. Sort of. Lt. Marion "Mops" Adamopoulos is head of the janitorial team on the spaceship Pufferfish. When their ship comes under attack and all of the human crew (except her team) revert to zombies, Mops must uncover a conspiracy that threatens the Krakau Alliance--and reveals the secret of the zombie plague's origin.
As I said, I bought the book because the premise sounded hilarious in theory. In practice...ehhh. Yes, it has its moments, and a lot of the book's structural choices merit a chuckle (for example, the cured humans choosing "famous" names like Bilbo Baggins for themselves). But if I compare this book to something like Joe Zieja's Communication Failure, the laughs just aren't there.
Mops and her team are a delight to read, though, so that helps offset the humor problem. Mops is exceptionally clever for a human, and she's never deterred by things going horribly horribly wrong. Even though she's just a janitor, she puts those skills to work solving the book's core mystery. It's really astonishing how much space janitor skills carry over, actually.
The rest of the team have their own distinct personalities, ranging from reckless brawler to the lone alien video gamer. I do wish the alien had gotten a bit more screen time--he gets sidelined on the ship for most of the book--but that's something we might see more of in the sequel.
The other thing that offsets the humor problem is the plot itself, which manages to take itself seriously and provide plenty of great action sequences. It's a great core idea that really plays to our love of underdogs (who's more underdog than a bunch of space janitors, I ask you?), and Hines paces the whole thing very well, with just enough downtime for the characters to grieve and plan between taking action.
That said, it's not a terribly surprising plot. If you haven't already figured out the "twist" just by reading the jacket copy (or my synopsis above, really), well...honestly, that would be more surprising to me than the twist itself. The book's suspense comes more from the threat of consequences than any real mystery.
It's definitely a fun world, though. As I mentioned above, the humor comes primarily from structural world choices. The EMC names its ships for Earth's "deadliest" creatures, so we get the Pufferfish and the Honey Badger. There's a genderless alien race that decided to pick alternating pronouns (he then she then he again) just to screw with humans. The "bad" alien race, based on insects, are awful liars, so all of their dialogue is a treat. It's not the deepest sci-fi world I've encountered, but there's enough to support the story and the humorous elements make it feel unique.
On the whole, I liked Terminal Alliance. I didn't love it--I wanted more humor than it supplied. But the premise was sound, the characters were fun, and I'm invested enough in Mops to want to read the next one.