In the Hall of the Martian King, John Barnes

Warner Aspect, 2003, 294 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61083-6

Well, it had to happen. After two books of generally likable action and adventure featuring young adult protagonist Jak Jinnaka, Barnes finally drops the hammer on his characters in the second half of In the Hall of the Martian King. Happy Barnes characters are generally an anomaly: sooner or later, the real world comes calling.

If you’re familiar with the rebellious, rabble-rousing Jak Jinnaka, the first few pages of this third volume are a bit of a shock: Jak seems to have settled down and is using his skills for a good cause. He’s now a capable bureaucrat stationed in Martian orbit, tasked with the mission of keeping things together just as his boss goes away on an extended holiday. From an undisciplined teen, Jak has now embraced responsibility and supervisory duties. All is well, except for one small archaeological discovery.

One tiny, insignificant unearthing of the all-encompassing “lifelog” of a major religious figure. An object that everyone wants, regardless of political authority. Before the end of the fourth chapter, Jak is already making end-runs around his own bureaucracy, setting plans in motion to capture the log for his true employers. If he could just be left alone, things would unfold smoothly. Alas, before even realizing it, Jak is surrounded by a menagerie of friends, fools, enemies and ex-lovers. His capabilities as a bureaucrat are taxed as he’s got to spend more time protecting an ignorant aristocrat against his worst instincts than successfully leading the diplomatic negotiations required to secure the artifact.

This first half of the novel is very, very enjoyable. It’s easily one of the highlights of the series so far: There’s a pleasant “lone competent man against the universe” feel to this section, one that brings to mind Keith Laumer’s “Retief” series of adventures. Barnes takes on the tone of a farce, and seeing Jak trying to keep all the spinning plates from crashing into the ground is hilarious. Nearly all of the series’ recurring characters are brought together in a tiny space, and the various plots and counter-plots are a delight to follow.

But pretty soon, even the fanciest diplomatic footwork can’t substitute for direct action. And this is where, true to the series’ structure so far, things change. Every book of the Jak Jinnaka series so far has been divided in two distinct sections, and the division in this third volume is more dramatic than most: The action spins out of control, and even a satisfying victory turns to a nightmare when one recurring character is killed.

This also marks he shift in tone from a lighthearted farce to a steely-eyed political thriller. Jak has to deal with his grief, settle a few unresolved issues, face down the web of manipulation in which he’s been snared and look at a world that’s much meaner than he expected. The conclusion of the entire story has resonance with John Le Carré’s implacable tales of realpolitik in which bad things happen to people who are worth more dead than alive. This leads Jak ready to face more adventures (as yet unwritten), but those are likely to be a touch darker in tone.

Fortunately, it’s not all gloom and depression for most of the book’s duration. Barnes’ strong narrative skills keep the book rolling along, and the verve of his prose once again bring to mind the usual comparisons with Heinlein. Barnes, though, has a stronger grasp of socio-political issues, and In The Hall of the Martian King is just as adept as its predecessors at integrating cool ideas with the flow of the story. The “Wager” of Jak’s universe is finally explained, with potentially wide-reaching consequences for upcoming books in the series.

Despite the abrupt turns in tone, and the growing darkness of the universe, the Jak Jinnaka series has been a terrific trilogy so far, and shows ample potential for further volumes. Barnes just has to write them; I’ll be there to buy them.

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