This month on Fast-Forward TV, I reviewed The Crucible of Empire by Eric Flint and K. D. Wentworth, a wonderful military science fiction work with elements of first contact and adventure. What you might not know is this is the second book of the Jao Empire Series from Baen Books. The first book, The Course of Empire, is equally good and can be enjoyed even if you have read The Crucible of Empire already. This is advice I took myself, as that is the order in which I read the books: it is like visiting friends and learning their past.
The book opens twenty years after the Jao have conquered Earth, turning the human population into servants at best. This was not an easy conquest, with the destruction of Chicago and New Orleans being some of the cost. The biggest difficulty the Jao have is trying to deal with how humans think. A great example is that most the Jao do not see any need for sports, art, gambling or other recreations that “produced nothing beneficial, nor taught or honed any useful military skill”. This caused a major incident when the Jao forbid an expedition to Mount Everest and when the humans went ahead anyway: the Jao destroyed them and the entire mountain. Nor are humans any better at understanding their conquerors, as the Jao language is very depended on body positions, including some that use their flexible ears, which is not only difficult for humans to interpret, but impossible for them to replicate. None of this is made better by the very hostile attitude the Jao Governor, Oppuk krinnu ava Narvo, has toward this planet and all its inhabitants.
Into this very tense environment a new element is added: the arrival of Allie krinnu ava Plutharak as the new commander of ground forces is making waves through the Jao hierarchy. For one, he is a member of a different kochan, or clan, than the leaders of the conquest, and these two kochan have not worked well together in the past. That he is sent to bring change is a given, but even Allie is not sure how or for what purpose. He finds many surprises in front of him, not only from the alien humans, but from his own people, some of whom have gone native enough to even begin enjoying music and other human recreations. To try and understand the native race, Allie decides to add some humans to his personal service, basically making them his aides, but closer to a feudal lord and vassal relationship. One such human, Gabe Tully, is less than pleased as he is actually a member of the human resistance forces. He becomes much more like a prisoner after his first attempt to escape, and Yaut, who is Allie’s fraghta or senior advisor, starts using Wren-Fa or body learning on Tully. The Jao believe Wren-Fa puts lessons “in the brain too deep for conscious understanding”; from Tully’s viewpoint, it causes a lot of bruises and pain. This is soft training, however, compared to what Caitlin Stockwell has received over the years. Daughter of the reluctant human President of North America, she is a hostage to his good behavior and since the age of three, has had a Jao bodyguard who seems to spend more time looking for reasons to discipline her than protect her. Caitlin is also one of the few humans who understands the Jao body language, making her a pawn for the increasing insane Oppuk, but to what end?
As in the latter book, there are too many characters for me to describe in this review, but none are window dressing. This is a complex work that deals with many issues, including human-alien communication and understanding, all amidst a swirling political situation that will lead to someone dying. Oh, and did I mention that Terra was conquered because the Jao believe their enemy the Ekhat will be visiting soon? If you have read the later work, you will know what a terror this is, but for the humans in this volume, most think it is a fairy tale excuse used to take over the planet.
I can give plenty of reasons for reading this book, including a great story, wonderful characters and some intriguing human-alien interactions. Another good reason is if you have an ereader, you can download the book from the Baen Free Library for … free! Whether you read this book first or have already sampled the second work, you will find The Course of Empire a terrific book.