I'm a Phule for Phule's Company by Robert Asprin (spoilers)

You know that old saying "never judge a book by its cover"? Well, I think Phule's Company is a good example. I came across this at the local library last week and checked it out on a whim. I never expected to blow through it in less than a week and enjoy it to boot.

So the premise is that the protagonist, Willard Phule is court-martialed by the Space Legion (think the French Foreign Legion in space) for ordering a strafing run during the signing of a treaty at a peace conference. He pleads guilty but the Legion has a bit of a problem when it comes to sentencing: you see, Phule is the son and heir of Phule-Proof Munitions which is not only one of the biggest weapons producers in the galaxy but is also the Space Legion's primary supplier. So needless to say, throwing him in prison is not an option. Neither is drumming him out the service because the Legion's own doesn't allow for that. So instead he's promoted, has his Legion name changed¹ and is given command of what's known as an omega company. This is an illegal unit that acts as a dumping ground for the misfits and losers who don't fit in anywhere else in the Legion. Given that the Legion has a reputation for scrapping the bottom of the barrel for recruits, that's saying something. Omega companies are, like I said, illegal and are normally disbanded when Legion HQ discovers them. In this case, they decide to give one to Phule in the hopes that it will drive him out of the service.

The rest of the book is that plan blowing up in their faces. It's also what caught me completely by surprise and made me a fan of this book and possibly the whole series. At the beginning of Phule's Company, Phule acts like an absolute idiot by trying to defend and justify his actions to his butler, Beeker. Ah yes, Beeker. Great character and obviously based on Jeeves from the Wodehouse stories. Every chapter is prefaced with a journal entry written by Beeker (in the context of keeping records for an eventual biography of his employer) which provides context for the goings on in that chapter.

So anyways, Phule acts like a numbskull right up until he gets command of the company, at which point he does a complete 180° and turns into like frelling Omar Bradley or something. The rest of the book is him turning the company not just around, but into a potentially elite unit within the Space Legion. Speaking of which, the company boasts some interesting characters:

*Mother: Originally named Rose, Mother suffers from extreme shyness that prevents her from talking to anybody face to face, but is a bombastic personality when talking to Phule and the others on their communicators, owing to her background as a radio DJ. She's renamed Mother because of the way she mothers Brandy and Phule in one scene.

*Super Gnat: The smallest human in the company and carries a chip on her shoulder bigger than she is. Even the slightest comment about her height (or lack thereof) sets her on the warpath. Surprisingly, she tells Phule that she is skilled in like three different forms of karate, but it all goes out of her head when she gets hotheaded. Needless to say, she doesn't win too many fights. Any fights, really.

*Tusk-anini: See that warthog alien on the cover? That's him. He's also a pacifist and apparently joined the Legion in order to learn about humans because he wants to be a teacher one day. He's one of only three aliens in the group.

*Spartacus and Louie: Sinthians and the other two aliens. They're slug-like aliens (that's Spartacus on the cover) whose names are supposed symbolize their social status on their homeworld, with Spartacus being lower and Louie being upper-class. They present several problems that Phule has to solve because of how slow they are and the fact that while they can use any weapon in the Legion, their eye stalks prevent them from being able to use any sighting device.

*Chocolate Harry (yes, really): The stereotypical supply sergeant who's selling the inventory on the black market on the down low. Rides a hoverbike (or hawg, as he calls them).

So Phule whips the group into shape then has to face down the Army in a three part competition in order to secure a contract for honor guard duty for the planet's governor. Unfortunately, the Army sends in its most elite special forces unit, the Red Eagles, who make Phule's Company look like crap even after all of the work he's put into them. Fortunately, Phule manages to manipulate the competition in such a way that it ends in a tie and as he explains to Beeker, that was a much better outcome than either side winning. With a tie, the company's prestige is elevated, while the Red Eagles still maintain their status as an elite unit.

Then Haskin's Planet gets accidentally invaded by some previously unknown reptilian aliens and Phule not only prevents a war from breaking out, but makes a business deal with them at the same time. Then he's court-martialed again, but comes out of it clean (and less popular with Legion headquarters) with some damn fine lawyering on his part. The book ends with the general in charge, Blitzkrieg, planning to use Phule's Company as a Dirty Dozen/Suicide Squad of sorts by giving them the worst assignments he can find and that sets up the rest of the series.

What sucks is that the local public library doesn't have the next book (they only have three in total), so reading the rest of the series is going to be unlikely unless I can find my own copies. Nonetheless, if you can get your hands on Phule's Company, I would recommend it.

¹In the Space Legion, everybody has three names: their real name, the name that they adopt when they join, and a nickname that they pick up during their service. There's a rule, I can't remember if its official or not, that nobody in the Legion asks each other for their real name. Phule largely disregards that rule for himself, but honors it for everybody else.

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