The Secret King: First Contact by Dawn Chapman is the sequel to the first novel, Lethao, which chronicled the journey of the human-like Aonise to the planet Earth after their sun exploded. One part 1970s Battlestar Galactica, one part Jack Kirby, and one part Game of Thrones--it was a very enjoyable story which made me eager to review the next one. Even so, I had to admit a certain amount of trepidation due to my overwhelming hatred of humans.
Perhaps I should explain. When I speak of humans, I generally mean that Earthlings in these sorts of stories never end up appealing to me. Mankind meeting aliens in the present is always going to either have to bend over backward to make the aliens awful people or will result in us looking like the rednecks of the universe with our general backwardness. Take Doctor Who under the 9th and 10th Doctors? We did not cover ourselves in glory presenting Rose Tyler's family as the model of our species.
Dawn Chapman avoids the flaws of this (as well as Battlestar Galactica 1980, which it superficially resembles) by presenting the humans of 2016 as surprisingly enlightened. Despite upending everything we know about the universe, evolution, and our place in the universe--the United Kingdom accepts the two-million Aonise into its territory as a peaceful exchange of technology for resources begins. I think we could have spent a little more time on the human reaction to this news but I think the author made a good decision keeping the perspective squarely focused on the aliens during this.
Rather than deal with the dumb apes on this world, we have the Aonise's perspective on humanity and trying to fit in. There's a little too much focus on the romantic troubles between a few characters from two humans to a adulterous human/Aonise relationship but, overall, I enjoyed the pace as King Kendro tries to make peace while not tipping his hand too much. The fact everyone more or less deals fairly with one another in negotiations was so surprising that it actually counts a genre subversion.
It's interesting seeing the perspective of a 70s science fiction race like the Aonise have to deal with the mundane humans of our world. The Aonise have what amounts to psychic powers and healing magic while also being tall Flash Gordon dressed people. It makes you hate being a Muggle but there's a few interesting moments which are noteworthy like the fact human genetic experimentation shocks the Aonise as does their willingness to push taboos. There's even a disturbing moment where Kendro debates whether they'll eventually have to "bind" humanity just to keep us in check.
My favorite subplot deals with the establishment of a new house among the Aonise outcasts. The Heiako are a people who have been treated as vermin so long that even on a rationed starship, they have gangs in order to instill order. The idea of them creating their own noble house to rival the others intrigues me. I'm looking forward to seeing more of them and their rise to power soon. I also like the fact adultery does occur in the "main" couple because, honestly, there are too much books with unrealistic treatments of romance. Some men and women are just cheaters.
Much of the book depends on your familiarity with the characters from the previous book as well as how much you're invested in their personal crises. It's less about making peace with humanity and the possibility of war (though that's there too) than keeping the heir hidden, the love between two officers, and the continuing threat of Dalamaar. I'm disappointed there wasn't much Lady Katesh as well since she remains my favorite character in the series as well as infinitely more interesting than the ostensible villain.
In conclusion, I enjoyed First Contact a great deal. While I didn't enjoy it as much as Lethao and think it could have pushed a few more envelopes, it's a solid piece of science fiction from beginning to end.