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A Circus of Hells by Poul AndersonTim Hildebrandt cover3 stars

Anderson’s second full-dress Flandry novel is markedly different than its predecessor. Rather than a space opera spectacle, Anderson opts for a mix of hard science, intrigue, and adventure. The mix can be a bit confusing, and certainly lacks the goshwow excitement that came before. But ultimately it’s a satisfying if minor entry in Anderson’s estimable canon. 

A Circus of Hells has Dominic Flandry, now a junior lieutenant, stationed on a backwater world the empire no longer particularly cares about. Bored with the routine and irked at the complacency of the empire, which doesn’t seem to care about the encroachment of the enemy Merseians upon this part of imperial space, Flandry accepts a million-credit bribe to undertake a legally dubious voyage to locate a remote world long forgotten by the empire that is rich in precious ores and metals. Accompanied by Djana, a deeply religious hooker with a heart of gold (!) who happens to have her own secret agenda, Flandry ultimately reaches the planet, Wayland. He discovers that the computer that ran the centuries-deserted mining operations is still very functional and has been building myriad “species” of robots that hunt each other like wild animals and even go head-to-head with one another on massive lifesized chessboards!

Upon leaving this surreal planet, Flandry learns that the pair of them have been sold out to the Merseians, who promptly snatch up Flandry’s vessel. Flandry is told by a rather amiable Merseian civilian scientist named Ydwyr that he will do what he can to spare Flandry’s life if the brash young lieutenant will assist him in his scientific exploration of the planet Talwin, where Flandry and Djana have been taken. Ostensibly only a research station, the Merseians have been secretly keeping a military and intelligence presence on Talwin, despite the planet’s location in neutral space, because of its close proximity to imperial borders. What follows is traditional hard SF, quite in contrast to the rip-roarin’ action of Ensign Flandry, as much geological and xenobiological information about Talwin and its “autochthons” (a favorite term of Anderson’s to refer to a world’s natives) is exhaustively catalogued.

Although it is odd that Anderson chose to abandon completely the Wayland plot thread (we never learn anything more about it), the path the story finally settles on holds your interest despite some of the kind of textbook stuffiness endemic to so much hard SF: long passages detailing scientific information with college-lecture straightforwardness. Flandry again proves himself a fascinatingly flawed hero, not above taking bribes or lying his way out of embarrassing spots. This is not a major novel, and in relation to Ensign Flandry I was a bit disappointed in it, simply because that book was such a rousing party. (In many ways A Circus of Hells reads as if Anderson started writing one story, about Wayland, then changed his mind halfway through and decided to go with the Merseian plot.) But in the end, this book ties up all its loose ends satisfactorily and should please readers in the mood for some old fashioned space adventuring. I got a particular kick out of the denouement.

In 1993, Baen Books published this novel as one half of an omnibus paperback (also including the next Flandry novel, The Rebel Worlds) simply entitled Flandry. Then in 2011 it appeared in yet another omnibus, Young Flandry, the one featuring the notorious — and wonderfully parodied — sexist cover art.