In 1979, when Alan Dean Foster published 'Mission to Moulokin', he'd written four books in the Pip & Flinx series and only two other standalone books in the wider Humanx Commonwealth universe, 'Icerigger' and 'Midworld'. This is a direct sequel to the former and the seventh Humanx Commonwealth novel. It would become, eight years later, the middle of the 'Icerigger' trilogy with the publication of 'The Deluge Drivers', which I'll review next month.
As I've explored the standalone Humanx Commonwealth books, I've pondered on why Foster wrote so many of them, but the obvious answer to why he went back to the ice planet of Tran-ky-ky to build a trilogy rather than other unique environments like the crystal world of 'Sentenced to Prism' or the ocean of 'Cachalot' is that he was working within a different genre. I see that some debates have sprung up about whether 'Icerigger' is science fiction at all or fantasy. I lean towards the latter but this sequel is really a planetary romance in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs.
When 'Icerigger' wrapped, our heroes had survived being stranded on an ice planet whose temperature reaches a heady 3°C at the equator. They'd made it to an iceport called Wannome and helped its Tran population free themselves from the long-running threat of the nomadic Horde. In thanks, those Tran had helped them travel to Brass Monkey, a research base that serves as the only Commonwealth outpost on the planet.
Here, we begin as we left off, with Celeste and her father leaving Tran-ky-ky, as expected, to run their intergalactic business empire, but the others finding that they maybe don't want to leave it at all. At this point, they have spent eighteen months in these sub-zero temperatures and have kind of got used to it. They've also found an appreciation for the local Tran and a place in their society.
Now, realising that the local population is being ripped off in Arsudun, the city closest to Brass Monkey, they decide that the Tran should be officially recognised, and thus protected, by the Commonwealth. So our intrepid heroesSkua September, giant adventurer; Ethan Fortune, intergalactic salesman; and Milliken Williams, schoolteacherdecide to set out to fix that, starting by bringing a message of peace and unity to the nearby cluster of islands known as Poyolavamaar. Unity is key to official recognition.
Needless to say, it doesn't go remotely well but, to be fair, that's hardly their fault. Resident Commissioner Jobius Trell is doing very well indeed as things are and he doesn't want them to change in the slightest, so he plots with the Landgrave of Arsudun, Callonnin Ro-Vijar, to scuttle the potential of these talks, starting by orchestrating the kidnapping of Elfa Kurdagh-Vlata, Wannome's princess and heir (and noted fan of Ethan Fortune), from their icerigger, Slanderscree.
It doesn't help that the Landgrave of Poyolavomaar, Tonx Ghin Rakossa, is a madman. Sure, his opinions of the peace-seekers are outrageously hobbled by Ro-Vijar's mendacity, but what really sets him firmly against our heroes is that they not only escape from his prison but do so with his pet concubine, Teeliam Hoh, who wants away from his torturous affections. We might describe it as stealing away his precious.
It's here that we really start to move into that Edgar Rice Burroughs style. They escape from Poyolavomaar through what the locals describe as Hell, the reality being a fascinating underground ecosystem in the manner that Foster is rightly known. Once outside, they follow Teeliam Hoh's suggestion to seek out the mythical land of Moulokin less than a couple of hundred satch to the southwest. And, while we're halfway through the book at this point, our real journey begins here.
For all that this is planetary romance, with our trio of Earthmen teaming up with locals to seek out a mythical nation state, which does of course exist, and bring peace and alliance with them, there's a deeper secret to be found in Moulokin that's reminiscent of how the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey moved from fantasy into science fiction and with as much depth.
I liked this one a lot, maybe more than 'Icerigger', but putting this review together makes me realise that everything that I really liked about it comes during the second half. Does that mean that the first sucks? No. It does the job it needs to do, but that job is partly a reunion after a publishing gap of five years and partly a setup to where we're going with the trilogy. The adventure should really start when our heroes leave Arsudun for Poyolavomaar but what ends up being more solid setup feels a little like a false start at the time.
Technically, the journey through the pika-pedan forest is within the first half too, but it feels like the calm before the storm rather than part of the storm itself. It's where Foster gets to do his ecological imagination, with meworlf and guttorbyn and stavanzers among others. There wasn't much of his usual flora and fauna in 'Icerigger', perhaps because an ice planet has less opportunity for that than an ocean planet or a desert planet, but he's almost eager to make up for it here.
And, at the end of the day, the potential for book three is large and overt. We surely know where we're going by the end of it, only wondering where the imagination of Alan Dean Foster will pepper it with interest. I would guess that there will be a number of obstacles placed in the way of our heroes and they may well be conjured up out of new cloth. Let's find out next month in 'The Deluge Drivers', published a surprising eight years on from this one. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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