|Submitted by Karen Burnham |
(Oct 13, 2006)
In this second book of Elizabeth Moon’s “Vatta’s War” series, things take a turn for the dark. Someone has more or less declared war on the Vatta trading company, violently destroying their company headquarters and sabotaging their ships. Almost all the senior officers of the company/family are wiped out. Kylara, our heroine, had been attempting to get back on track after the misadventures of the previous novel, but finds herself in a situation where she must see more to the defense of herself and her ship than to trade. As an undercurrent through the books so far, she has several times had to kill people in self-defense, and she has been uneasily recognizing that she enjoys the killing. She doesn’t seek it out, but is worried that it indicates something horrible about herself. She doesn’t deal with it directly, but it is an undercurrent of tension in her character throughout the novel.
The set up of this universe lends itself to the grand tradition of importing 18th and 19th century sailing narratives (Hortatio Hornblower being the classic) into space. The traders operate mostly independently, since FTL communication is difficult and monopolized. It is impossible while in FTL travel, and at port one can still only communicate through monopolized ansibles. When someone attacks and sabotages these ansible platforms, everything starts going to hell. Hard currency becomes invaluable as bank accounts are frozen, and any news is days or weeks out of date. In the midst of this Kylara finds herself in possession of a Letter of Marque, authorizing her to operate as a privateer (legalized pirate) under the auspices of her home planet. However, she has no way of finding out what the political situation there may be. In fact, in an interesting twist, it causes significant problems when the mercenaries she hires as protection for her trade convoy are extremely dubious about working for anyone acting as a privateer, an interesting dilemma probably stretching back to the 13th century if not before.
“Vatta’s War” operates close to, but not strictly in the military SF tradition. (For one, there is no formal military involved here, it’s all independent operators and traders.)The focus is on smaller-scale problem solving rather than on ship-to-ship combat, although that does also take place. Mostly we follow Kylara as she lines up trade, finances, defence, and the care of stray dogs. Lots of random things happen (as they do in life), sometimes causing problems and sometimes being beneficial. Although Kylara fits nicely in the mold of young but very good captains in stories throughout the ages, Moon takes pains to keep her from being unrealistically good at everything. She picks up an ex-military consultant who helps her with her defences, and a cousin who helps her figure out the company situation, plus a rogue ansible expert who helps her figure out the FTL communication situation. This focus on the character of Kylara, without making her into something unrealistic, strengthens comparisons between Moon’s book and the early books of Lois McMaster Bujold, the ones focusing on Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan (Miles’ mother). Interestingly, in a previous series some had criticized Moon for having her female characters wielding too much power in unofficial ways, bypassing the traditional official male centers of power. Here she literally blows up the traditional official male centers of power, leaving the women to pick up the pieces using both the skills that they have natively and the power they are left with.
While touching on interesting questions of military ethics: privateering, mercenaries, and the problem of individual blood lust, the story is always the center of the book. Mostly this is about a young captain struggling to fulfill her obligations to her crew and her family the best she can in incredibly hard times, surmounting all the obstacles put in her way. A classic adventure narrative, smoothly written with wit enough to leaven the dark side of the heroine.