It’s always a challenge to stick the landing of a really good series. It’s even trickier when several years have passed since the release of the previous book, and it’s especially difficult when those passing years were during a global pandemic. But with Terminal Peace, Jim C. Hines brings his “Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse” series to a close with a novel that’s still as funny and clever as the first two but also features a surprisingly deep exploration of mortality, the ethics of free will, and the perils of war.
Back in 2017, which seems even longer ago now than it actually was, Hines introduced readers to Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos, the Lieutenant in charge of Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation (the janitorial staff) on the starship Pufferfish. Long before, a disaster rendered Earth uninhabitable, and humans feral—zombie-like, predatory, thoughtless versions of former humans. Thanks to the help of Krakau scientists (squid-like aliens and leaders of a galactic alliance), some humans had been cured, more or less.
Now practically impervious to pain, quick to heal, and incredibly able mercenaries, humans became a feared force throughout the universe. This made them an asset to the Krakau Alliance in the war against the Prodryan Empire. But in the first two books in the series, Mops and her team (who end up in command of the Pufferfish, with Mops as captain) discover some incredibly unsavory truths about who’s at fault for the downfall of Earth. (Spoiler alert for the first two books: it’s the Krakau. But it was an accident! Really!)
Terminal Peace beautifully balances a delicate line between recapping just enough so that readers can remember what went on before, but never retreading too much ground. There are no summaries here, just responses from Mops and her team that remind readers, “Oh yes, that’s what happened.” While Terminal Peace isn’t the best place to start the series, a reader could jump in here without ever feeling too much at a loss for what’s going on, because Hines deftly manages the world-building in brief snippets, and because the story starts moving along in a new direction almost immediately, as Mops takes on one last mission to end the war between the Krakau Alliance and the xenophobic Prodryans, who are determined to wipe out every other sapient species.
Why is it a last mission? Terminal Peace opens with tragic news: Mops is reverting to a feral human. She’s going to lose her ability to reason. As a captain known for her ability to think outside the box (including a penchant for using cleaning supplies to solve military problems—a gimmick that never fails to be funny throughout the series), the idea of losing herself is terrifying. It’s not necessarily a fate worse than death, but it’s a fate just like death. And Mops just doesn’t have enough time. But really, would there ever be enough?
Mops takes the Pufferfish out to a world the Prodryan Empire fears, determined to make contact with the local residents and enlist them to help end the war. But what she and the crew find there is a deeper moral question. If the only way of winning the war is a biological weapon that would fundamentally change who the Prodryans were, should they use it? Does any species have the right to take away that free will from another? For the humans, changed into something entirely different by their interactions with the Krakau (and still, understandably, smarting over it), this question hits a little too close to home.
Hines navigates this combination of ethical dilemma, action, humor, and heart with dexterity, never lingering too long over the deep thoughts to become bogged down in them, and using the humor at just the right moments to keep the story fun. He also plays some excellent tricks with point-of-view narration. Each chapter begins with a small scene that’s beyond Mops’s perspective, giving readers insight into the larger universe, including plots being put into action by Mops’s supposedly captive Prodryan lawyer, Advocate of Violence, affectionately (kind of) known as Cate.
But there’s an even deeper shift. As Mops relinquishes her command of the mission, she also hands off command of the narrative. Hines uses that moment to shift into some of the other crew members—particularly Mops’s mission leader, Kumar, and the commander of the Pufferfish, Monroe. It’s a beautifully meaningful narrative shift that’s both practical and symbolic.
Terminal Peace is the type of finale fans of Hines’s previous work have come to expect: a zany adventure far deeper than the series title would lead readers to believe. Mops and her team are there to clean up the whole universe’s mess, and sometimes that means looking at what parts of history need to be washed away (but remembered) so that everyone can move forward into a brighter future.
Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at VirgilandBeatrice.com.