Sometimes I’m not paying close attention when I start a new book, and it takes me a little while to catch on to the kind of book it is. Based on the title alone, I started reading Terminal Alliance expecting it to be super serious space opera. (You’d expect something called Terminal Alliance being full of tense intrigue and explosive space battles, right?)
Not one chapter in, I’m giggling along with the proceedings of Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos and her intrepid band of space janitors. I can only blame myself; I should have known something subtitled Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse was going to be funny. Plus, it’s written by Jim C. Hines, master of funny fantasy novels starring goblins and librarians (in separate series, sadly; “goblin librarians” is a good hook). Plus, the cover has a few janitors standing around heroically holding mops, and a silly looking alien.
Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking either.
We first meet Mops as she chooses a name, a decision that causes some consternation with her alien Awakening and Orientation Officer. You see, Marion Adamopoulos was the scientist credited with destroying humanity back in the early 22nd Century, turning all humans into shambling monsters that sound a lot like zombies. The alien Krakau have figured out a way to reawaken humans from their feral state, after which they assign them to tasks in the Krakau military. (The fallout from said biological cataclysm also happened to make the infected humans almost bulletproof.) Newly alive—again—Mops chooses her name in gratitude to the Krakau, intending it as a reminder of the danger humanity poses to itself.
We later see Mops in her assigned job: sanitation officer on the Krakau spaceship Pufferfish. She’s bailing Wolfgang “Wolf” Mozart out of the brig, after she’s been tossed in there for fighting, again. Humans are considered dangerous and stupid by most other sentient species, ticking time bombs who may at any moment revert to their feral state, and Wolf tends to pick fights when she feels like she’s being sneered at. Which brings me to another point: no, I didn’t typo; Wolfgang is a woman. The Krakau also tried to synthesize all human culture and language into one, with understandably ludicrous results. People name themselves irrespective of gender, ethnicity, or fictionality, so you run into everyone from Santa Klaus to Charles Schultz.
Her cleaning crew rounded out, Mops goes to work on the unending upkeep and maintenance of a spaceship. (There are a lot of poop jokes.)
Mops and her crew are happily cleaning up the refuse of the Pufferfish while the ship is on a rescue mission. The janitors are all suited up against a particularly nasty situation, which is why they are not affected by a contagion that returns with the soldiers, one that makes every human on the ship go feral and murder the Krakau crew and most of the other aliens—all except a Glacidae named Grom. This puts Mops and her janitors in command of a military vessel, a job just a little above their pay grade. (The sections in which they try to learn how to fly the ship are wincingly funny). The Krakau central authority gets all twitchy when Mops repeats something about “Krakau venom,” and plan to “put down” the feral crew. Mops decides this is unacceptable, and heads off to figure out where this contagion came from, and how to save her fellow no-longer-entirely-humans.
I have this feeling like I’m making this all sound like a drag, but reviewing comedy is hard, okay? Replicating a joke turns into explaining the joke, which never ends in hilarity. That, and comedy is very personal: one person’s knee-slapper is another’s groaner. Personally, I found the mix of wordplay, tech goofing, and poop jokes in Terminal Alliance quite winsome. This is a very funny book, but it also has heart, and that slow emotional burn makes all the difference. Grand space operas sometimes have a tendency to feel emotionally airless—all gleaming vessels and stoic heroes and missions of galactic import. Here, we meet the people who scrub the toilets and change lightbulbs, hip deep in the effluence of our humanity.
It’s not always pretty, it’s often funny, and it’s a helluva ride.