The Xenocide Mission is an explosive, thrilling ride through a completely plausible near future involving genuinely alien aliens and FTL space travel, with characters whose inner lives are complex and relatable even as they carve trails of fiery destruction through their equally complex and relatable enemies in a series of exciting but morally questionable futuristic battle scenes.
Well, that's what it wants to be, anyway. What it actually is is the sort-of literary equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (the film, that is). And, given that much of the appeal of Guardians of the Galaxy, for me at least, lay in its fantastically lush 3D visuals, The Xenocide Mission was not actually very appealing at all.
Perhaps I should elaborate. The Xenocide Mission falls very much into the tradition of disposable, predictable space fiction in which Guardians of the Galaxy takes part. It begins aboard a space station, SkySpy, orbiting a distant planet in a distant solar system. SkySpy's purpose is to monitor the apparently xenocidal inhabitants of said planet for any sign of FTL, which would, according to the logic of such narratives, represent a deadly danger to Earth as the imaginatively named XCs (for "xenocides") spread through the universe destroying all intelligent life.
SkySpy is, however, attacked by the XCs, sparking something of a military crisis back on Earth and its associated worlds and space stations as the Powers that Are put together a task force to retrieve SkySpy's technology and surviving personnel. But what is the secret hidden on the Dead World, the planet apparently destroyed by the XCs? And are the aliens really as hostile as they seem?
To be fair, this could probably be the set-up for a really good, or at least moderately good, space opera. The problem is what Jeapes actually does with his premise, which is rather pedestrian. There's an emotionally-repressed hero who breaks regulations to smuggle a picture of his sweetheart aboard; there's the bored ex-soldier (well, Navy officer) desperate to help, but barred by his civilian status; there's the hardened marine who's only priority is to follow orders. These familiar characters are merely sketched in; like the main players of a summer blockbuster, they're ciphers, placeholders being used to advance the plot and shoot the bad guys.
There are attempts to expand the novel into new territory: there are several chapters written from the POV of the XCs, and an attempt at creating some genuinely alien cultures. The Rusties, a genetically modified race of servants who've made a Commonwealth alliance with their human liberators, make their decisions not as individuals but as a herd; the XCs communicate through a process known as Sharing, which involves consuming memory bubbles ("Shareberries") which grow on the back of the creatures' necks. But it's too desultory an attempt, really, to be satisfactory: the humans and the XCs can communicate by sign language and, a few pages later, by translator; it's just too easy for the races to understand each other. Ultimately, the aliens in The Xenocide Mission feel very much like Star Trek aliens, humans with a bit of fancy cosmetic enhancement.
And, while it's true that the general aim of most of the characters appears to be World (Universal?) Peace, the book wears this layer lightly. It's the same kind of mendacious thematic well-meaning which permeates, e.g., Star Trek: Into Darkness: "We're going to blow up lots of bad guys, but it's all okay because we're really working for peace and harmony throughout the universe." Again, there's no sense that anyone really wants peace that much; blowing people up is much more fun.
The Xenocide Mission is a book that takes a lot of easy ways out. It sets up interesting plot points, interesting conversations, interesting ways to think about tropes we tend to take for granted, only to ignore them or undermine them or truncate them. It's disappointing, and forgettable, and occasionally just plain silly. (Twenty-six letters in the alphabet - and that's just the English one - and you couldn't come up with a better alien name than "Oomoing"? Really?) It's Guardians of the Galaxy, but without the pretty pictures, the cute tree, or the jokes. In other words, it's crap.