Warner Aspect, 2003, 319 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61082-8
Veteran John Barnes readers were shaken by A Duke of Uranium. the first volume of his “Jik Jinnaka” series: Here was a John Barnes with no horrid violence, no non-consensual sex, no last chapter that killed everyone in sight. In fact, the novel was practically a Heinlein juvenile with a bit more sex and action: an old-fashioned SF novel that tried real hard to please everyone and made a serious stab at the YA market. Knowing Barnes’ tendency to drop the hammer on his characters when they least expect it, could he sustain such an atmosphere in further volumes of the series? Follow-up A Princess of the Aerie answers that with a resounding “Oh, you knew what was coming…”
But before explaining what didn’t turn out so well, let’s take a moment to be grateful for what has been carried over from the first novel. The quasi-Heinleinian narration is back, with its mixture of future world-building, unusual slang, snappy dialogue and efficient prose. It doesn’t take much time to be sucked into A Princess of the Aerie, especially not when Jak gets a cry for help: His old girlfriend (previously established as a princess in the previous volume) needs his help in dealing with a big problem, and Jak’s covert training is perfect for the job.
So far, so good. But the wind starts to turn once Jak gets to the Aerie: Much to his dismay, he avoids being killed, discovers that the cry for help was an authentic fake, and that his ex-girlfriend is now deeply into kinky domination games. Barnes’ streak of books without non-consensual sex ends shortly in A Princess of the Aerie as Jak is manipulated into sexual mind-games for his ex-girlfriend’s unabashed entertainment. (The unspoken moral of the story is something like “don’t let a super-powerful girlfriend mess with your brain chemistry, despite the hot sex you may think you’re getting out of it.”) Suffice to say that the novel solidly establishes itself as one that all Young Adults will want to read… despite their parents’ objections.
It’s handled with a smile, but a bittersweet one. Jak eventually realizes the extent to which he has fooled himself, and what an absolutely corrupt person his ex-girlfriend has been all along. But he doesn’t get much time to think about it: before realizing it, he’s exiled on what’s called an important covert operation on service to the Aerie.
That is the breaking cue for another interplanetary travel sequence that may bring back memories of the first volume. Some characters return and some familiar games are played, leaving readers with an impression not only of deja-vu, but also of a broken plot: why spend so much time on Jak’s betrayal if the real story is going to take place elsewhere?
Jak and friends eventually end up on Mercury, where Barnes explains what he didn’t have to in the first volume: In the world of Jak Jinnaka, Mercury ends up being the lowest rung on the lowest ladder, a hellish place where everyone is naturally exploited by physics and the way the economy is structured. The planet’s only output is precious metals, and the working environment isn’t for wussies: Everyone works hard and dies young. Police enforcement is practically non-existent. Amazingly enough, things are getting worse: The normally metastable power dynamics of the competing factions is upset by the arrival of a ruthless new faction, and it’s up to Jak and his few friends to correct the problem. Class credits may be at stake.
Jak’s universe constantly gets darker and more dangerous throughout the novel, and if the outcome of his mission is never truly in doubt, the real meat of the novel is in the sacrifices he has to make in order to settle the issue. Progressively, we come to understand the bitterness of the opening foreword in which Jak is dismissed by his ex-best friend. As Jak progresses, he finds out the lies and dangers in being turned into a hero. Poor guy: finds out his ex-girlfriend is a witch, loses his friends, has his reputation trashed on system-wide media…
And yet, one comes away from A Princess of the Aerie with the unaccountable feeling that this is, in fact, a pretty fun book. Despite the plot that goes awry, despite the gathering clouds, despite the foreboding that Jak is going to be way over his head in the third volume, the reading pleasure of this volume remains intact. I may still not be convinced by the girlfriend’s abrupt revelation as a Machiavellian sociopath, but I’m not going to complain (much) either. What is noticeable, though, if how the series now seems more aligned to Barnes’ known track record. Despite knowing better, I’m really looking forward to In the Hall of Martians Kings.