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TPG reviews: Next of Kin, by Eric Frank Russell

July 20, 2013

A short, sharp and brilliant piece of SF

Scout-Officer John Leeming knew from the very start that his reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory was likely to be a one-way trip. But when his ship finally let him down and he crashed on a far-distant planet and was captured by tough and ruthless aliens, he knew he wasn’t just going to give up.

Armed with a piece of wood, a coil of copper-like wire, his quick wits and an imaginary ally called Eustace, Leeming embarked on a brilliant campaign to gain his freedom – and coincidentally undermined the entire alien war effort!

My rating: 4/5

See that blurb up above?  That’s pretty much the whole novel right there. Of particular note is that the intriguing second paragraph covers the last quarter-or-so of the book. Much of the book, then, is simply setup for the situation presented on the back cover.  Tension, as you might expect, is practically non-existent: when Leeming makes his first attempt to leave the planet, we all know he’s going to fail simply because neither his wire nor the mysterious Eustace have yet been mentioned.

That said, it is all very entertaining.

The backdrop of the novel is a straightforward one.  The Alliance, a…er…alliance of twelve sapient species including humanity, is locked in a war with the so-called Combine.  The Combine is a second alliance consisting of a whopping twenty civilizations.  Sadly, the latter faction has nothing to do with the aliens from Half Life. The exact details and history of the war are never discussed, though its implied that the Combine were the original instigators.  It’s not particulary complex, but it provides ample room for John Leeming to…well, be John Leeming.

Let me explain.  John Leeming is a scout pilot, who spends most of his time flying solo and who has very little patience for military procedure. Among other incidents, he was once disciplined for putting his cap on backwards during a military parade – the result of “a bad attack of what-the-hell”, as Leeming explains to a superior officer.  Leeming is a wild card – precisely what the Alliance needs to finally win the war, as it turns out.  And no, I’m not spoiling anything when I say that: its all but outright stated on the freaking blurb.

When a new ultra-fast ship is built for the purpose of scouting out the Combine’s territory, John Leeming eagerly volunteers to fly it. After a mostly successful mission, during which much important intelligence is transmitted back to the Alliance, Leeming is forced to make a crash landing following a mechanical failure.  In trying to get off of the planet and back into friendly space, he is swiftly captured. Thus does he begin his long, bizarre and sometimes hilarious quest for freedom.

I should point out at this point that the writing itself is consistently top notch.  On the back cover of my edition can be seen a glowing review from none other than Terry Pratchett, stating that Next of Kin is a book he wished he had written.  Upon reading the book, one can quickly see why.  In addition to strong prose and excellent pacing, Russel frequently incorporates amusing asides into the narrative which span anything from single sentences to whole paragraphs.  The very first page contains a sterling example, in fact.

The best part of the book is undoubtedly its final quarter, where Leeming’s escape plan(the one involving copper wires and make-believe allies) finally takes form.  Other highlights include Leeming’s early antics at his base, a very realistic and well-written space battle and various scenes involving Leeming’s “survival kit”. Said kit is a product of bureaucracy which makes very little sense to either Leeming or his enemies.

At less than 200 pages, you’re likely to breeze through this in only a handful of days.  It’s a short ride, certainly, but it’s one that you’re likely to remember long after you’ve finished it. SF fans are sure to love it, and even non-fans will probably get at least something out of it.  The only reason I’m not giving this 5 out of 5 is that the back cover gives a bit too much away.

Incidentally, I’ve now ordered a second book by this author, recommended to me by the same person who recommended the above.  That book is Wasp, and I’ll be sure to review that as well when I’m done with it.

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From → Reviews

  1. Put his cap on backwards, eh? That must have been real…effective. 🙂

    As I’ve said before, I haven’t been exposed to much SF, but this definitely seems interesting. Plus, humor always makes it better, usually.

    Two questions. What style of humor, would you say? And what’s the level of maturity? Being still a teen, I don’t want to read something that I shouldn’t, so I try to be cautious about new books…

    • I wouldn’t say the level of maturity is particularly high for this book. A couple of characters die over the course of the story and the backstory is dark in places, but nothing explicit is ever shown. I’d consider the book suitable for teens and above, personally.

      Regarding the humor…to be honest, I’m not particularly sure how to explain it. In the final act, it all comes from the sheer absurdity of Leeming’s plan and his captors’ corresponding inability to do anything about it. Before that, it’s mostly just the way that things are written. To give one example from early on:

      “In a three-dimensional medium where speeds were tremendous and space was vast this tactic never worked. It did not stop both sides from trying to make it work whenever the opportunity came along. This could be viewed as eternal optimism or persistent stupidity, according to the state of one’s liver.”

      Sorry for being vague here; if I can think of a better way to explain then I’ll make another reply.

      PS: would you mind checking your spam filter when you get the chance? My comments on other sites seem to have stopped showing up for some reason, and I suspect Akismet is playing up.

      • Alrighty I think that might be okay. I’ll see if I can find this book at the library, then.

        Actually, that’s kind of funny. I ask because I know I kind of have an odd style of humor, so… I don’t know, I guess I was just kind of curious. 🙂

        Hmm. I do have one of your comments in my spam filter….that’s weird…

      • Alright, thanks for confirming that for me :). I’ve contacted Akismet about it now; hopefully, it’ll get fixed before long.

      • Let’s hope…. That must be mighty annoying.

  2. I’ve yet to read any of Russell’s work. Have you read any of his shorts?

    • Afraid not; this is the first work of his that I’ve ever read. I can see myself getting into his stuff, though, if this book is anything to go by.

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  1. Reading update | The parasite guy
  2. TPG reviews: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell | The parasite guy

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