Phule’s Company, by Robert Lynn Asprin

phules-company-by-robert-lynn-asprin coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1990
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by David Hart

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It’s said that you can’t judge a book by its cover. It is certainly true that you shouldn’t judge a SF book by its blurb. This book confirms these truisms, in spades! The cover announces the first in the all-hilarious series. The blurb says the company “… does more damage before 9am than most people do all day… and they’re mankind’s last hope”; all of which have nothing whatsoever to do with the story. The situation isn’t helped by the punny title, which fits the cover of the book rather than its contents. My previous experience of Asprin was the mediocre Myth series which does aspire to hilarity, though with little success. So what with one thing and another, I approached the book with some trepidation. For a change I was surprised pleasantly.

We are in a future of routine space travel, many inhabited planets and several intelligent races. There are conventional armed forces, but also the equivalent of the Foreign Legion, which accepts all recruits, criminal or otherwise. Slightly improbably it manages to attract enough potential officers to allow the buying of commissions, so the officers tend to be rich. Our protagonist is Captain Phule, who is even richer than most but also brighter. As a punishment for accidentally strafing the signing of a peace treaty he is put in charge of a company of misfits in a backwater planet. The book relates his highly successful efforts to meld them into a reasonable military unit.

One way such a task could have been made into a story would have been to go through the company soldier by soldier, describing each one’s problem and showing how Phule solved it. There is a certain amount of this, especially at first, but Asprin does a good job of merging it with the main narrative. And what is that narrative about? Not a lot, actually. Most of the book is just about the unit settling in and interacting with the locals. When excitement occurs near the end, it turns out to be more opportunity than threat. But don’t get the idea that the book is boring or slow. The writing is well-paced to maintain interest, and the characters are reasonably well-formed for a book of this sort.

Drawbacks? The main one is plausibility. An implausible number of the soldiers turn out to be implausibly talented once their hang-ups are un-hanged, which they are with implausible ease. The company as a whole changes from slob to soldier implausibly quickly. Phule’s standard operating procedure for solving problems, throwing large amounts of money at them, works implausibly well. But hey, if you can’t suspend disbelief in fiction, where can you? (Politics?)

The other thing that some may consider a drawback is the general tone of the writing. I think the best word to sum it up is “light”. I don’t mean that disparagingly; sometimes an undemanding, happy-ending book is exactly what I want to read. Just don’t expect originality, emotional depth, or the sort of book that changes you for ever. And despite the cover, there is no attempt at hilarity either, thank goodness; at most there is gentle situational humor. Overall a book to help you unwind after a long week.

This is the first of a series. Other titles currently available are Phule’s Paradise, A Phule and His Money and Phule Me Twice — the latter two co-authored with Peter Heck.

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