I was extremely excited when I discovered that Flint and Wentworth were going to be working on a sequel to Course of Empire, a book I absolutely adored. This book takes place not too long after the resolution of CoE, and the joint human and Jao taif (a “taif” is something like a kochan–clan–with training wheels on) has come together in many ways, though there are still very understandable tensions between humans and their former conquerors. The sequel opens with Gabe Tully, who is called away from negotiations with a human resistance group for a mission.
After hurrying up and waiting, it’s revealed that something unusual was detected during a battle between the ships of Krant, a minor Jao kochan and the Ekhat–signs of intelligent, space faring life. A third party participated in that battle and the Bond of Ebezon want to find out who it was. Caitlin and Tully are both sent on this mission, which is also to serve as the shakedown cruise of the Lexington, an immense ship with a hybrid of both Jao and human technology and design aesthetics. Also sent on the mission is the remnants of the Krant crew, including the ship-captain Mallu, and a senior technician named Kaln, who both in their own ways become very important to the plot of the story.
A major theme of this book involves the complex interactions between two differing groups who are attempting to create one combined group. Jao have to learn how to get along with humans, and the humans have to make an effort at understanding Jao. Finding common ground is key in this process and there are many instances of this throughout the novel. (For instance, it’s discovered that Jao do have an imagination, it’s just not a very well developed for mostly cultural reasons. Kaln, for instance, turns out to like tinkering/altering/improving the machines she works on, and in a general sense it’s discovered that Jao are quite capable of scaring the crap out of greenhorns with tales of ships that turned inside out during interstellar travel. There is also evidence of extremely sophomoric humor and practical jokes.) Other themes involve social engineering (for the benefit of others) worker’s rights (or rather, making an attempt to introduce the concept in the first place) and the dangers of introducing Paul Bunyan to Jao who possibly have been hit in the head a little too hard, and a little too often.
This book felt very strongly like a “middle” book to me, and a little too short as well. Many of the characters were quickly introduced, then removed from the “stage” so to speak, which leaves the impression that these characters will possibly become important later. (Then they don’t show up again, which adds to the feeling that this a “middle” book.) There’s a very strong main plot (the investigation of the nebula where the Krants encountered the Ekhat and the third group of aliens and the subsequent Contact situation,) with a lot of side plots that lead into the main plot.
Some subplots I liked was Tully coping with being a Major in charge of his own company, (with a side dish of Tully crushing hard on one of his subordinates). Tully had some great moments here, interacting with Jao, and also apparently invoking his Inner Yaut. (There are several points where he consciously wonders what Yaut would do or say in his place, which I found extremely funny.) I also liked Caitlin’s arc in this novel, she’s really grown both as an individual and as a diplomat. Her arc also involves her learning to interact with the Jao captain of the ship, who was formerly a Narvo until she joined the Terra taif. Caitlin has a few moments where she has to overcome her fear and dislike for Narvo in general, so that she can communicate with Dannet. (There was also a lot of vice-versa, Dannet doesn’t really like her at first, but feels she has to make the attempt to bring Caitlin “into association.” Dannet’s arc in turn involves her realizing that humans might have a few interesting ideas/are effective soldiers, and she learns to kind of like Caitlin.) I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, (though now I’m waiting for the next book.)