RogerBW's Blog

Engaging the Enemy, Elizabeth Moon 04 July 2015

2006 SF, third in a five-book series. With the space pirates moving in earnest to extort protection money from interstellar trading polities, Kylara Vatta starts to build a fleet to take them on.

There aren't such huge reversals here as at the beginning of Marque and Reprisal, but in order to have a character arc Ky has to start out at a low point: so she's regarded as a dodgy privateer by everyone who meets her, even her cousin Stella thinks she's enjoying the fighting a bit too much, and her plans to build a multi-world space navy out of privateer forces are ridiculed.

There's also more artifice, as someone who was a hidebound nuisance in book one turns out to be an active agent for the bad guys. Yeah, maybe that was planned all along. Maybe. It would be nice to have someone who disagreed with Ky and wasn't wrong.

Ky's character is at the centre of this book, both in terms of her being hard on herself (a recurrent Moon theme of self-hatred and "every decision I have made has been wrong", while overcoming this is what passes for character growth), and in terms of her liking for killing: in this way of thinking, there's some small proportion of people who just naturally enjoy killing, who shouldn't be ashamed of it but probably should be soldiers, and everyone else, who will just never be as good as the others at anything military. (I think that last bit is where it might get a bit contentious. But then I remember Moon in September 2001, calling for the Middle East to be nuked flat and Islam to be wiped out world-wide, and not caring who might actually be responsible for anything.)

The only people who really matter here are Ky, her cousin Stella (who spends too much of this book complaining about and to Ky rather than doing stuff, which is rather inconsistent with her previous characterisation), and Rafe (Stella's ex-lover, I have a nasty feeling being set up to be Ky's lover by the end of the series, and a covert agent for the FTL comms monopoly that seems to have been mostly infiltrated by the pirates). All of them are superbly good at the things they're good at, though at least they're different things. Oh, and there's Aunt Grace back on Ky's homeworld of Slotter Key, which is still cut off from the FTL comms net; she's gradually bringing down the government that suddenly dropped support for the Vatta family company, though without bothering to find out who in it was actually corrupt and how, and I do hope that oversight comes back to bite her. There are other characters, but they very much fade into the background.

As before, pacing is uneven: there are one or two minor hazards and fights, but it's mostly talk until the big space battle at the end. That's not a terrible thing, but the battle feels almost wedged in so that there would be some major action; there shouldn't be a need to force in material like that. The space battle itself suffers from weird scaling problems, where ships manoeuvre in a formation thousands of miles wide, but keep that formation while performing tight manoeuvres round a planet, and worry about accidentally hitting each other with energy weapon fire. There's a sudden suggestion quite late on that shields against beam fire, and firing beams oneself, aren't entirely compatible, which has never been mentioned before and probably should have been.

Really, the whole book could have been condensed down to a few chapters at the end of the last one and a few more at the beginning of the next. We still don't even know who the big bad guys are. And the morality and competence of characters are entirely defined by how much they like Ky, much as in the worse moments of David Weber's Honor Harrington series.

Still, it's a pleasant read (Moon's technical grasp of writing is always solid even when other things get shaky) and most of the problems appear only when one stops being carried along in the stream and starts thinking about what's going on. Followed by Command Decision.

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