Elizabeth Moon is one of the authors I kept promising myself I would read someday, and the reasons I kept procrastinating were both the huge amount of books she’s written (with an embarrassment of riches you often don’t know where to start!) and the fact that, on a cursory examination, her stories seemed focused on military SF, a genre I’ve had some problems with. Military SF generally tends to focus mainly on the technical side of the stories and on the mechanics of space battles, leaving little room for character exploration: even a series like David Weber’s Honor Harrington – one that started quite well from my perspective – after the first books tended to favor tech vs. people, causing me to stop reading at some point.
A short time ago, however, Mogsy from Bibliosanctum showcased the newest book from Elizabeth Moon, Cold Welcome, and her review prompted me to try it out, even though it looked connected to a previous 5-book series, Vatta’s War: it’s true, as Mogsy wrote, that you can read it without prior knowledge of the main character’s back story, but after a handful of chapters I saw that said back story was not only very interesting but also important to understand what makes this character tick, and so I decided to start back from the beginning, with the first book in Kylara Vatta’s journey, Trading in Danger: it turned out to be one of the best choices I could make, because Elizabeth Moon is now firmly on her way to becoming one of my favorite authors as a great writer of military SF/space opera of the kind I enjoyed only through Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books.
Kylara Vatta is the youngest daughter of the Chief Financial Officer of Vatta Transport, a far-reaching trading company that’s also a family-run business: not wanting to be drawn into it, Ky has enrolled at the Space Academy, where she distinguished herself as an honors student. She’s however prone to misreading people and their true leanings, and in trying to aid a fellow cadet, whose ulterior motives are revealed when it’s too late to do anything about them, she indirectly causes profound embarrassment to the Academy and ends up being blamed for it and expelled. Back home on Slotter’s Key, Kylara is once more enfolded in the family trade she tried to avoid and given the captaincy of an aging ship for its last run, one that will end in a scrap yard where it will be sold for parts: on the surface, a milk run to test her capabilities as a commercial captain, with the assistance (read ‘babysitting’) of some senior members of Vatta’s vast fleet. Determined to prove her independence, Ky accepts a contracts from the Belinta colony to bring them the agricultural machinery they so desperately need from Sabine, show she can fulfill the family’s motto about “trade and profit”, and make some money she intends to funnel into repairs for the ship she’s developing a fondness for.
Unfortunately, the law about best laid plans is still in operation, and once Ky and her crew reach Sabine they find themselves in need of overhauling a major drive component, of juggling finances that are stretched too thin for comfort, with the obligations they need to fulfill and – what’s worse – a sudden conflict that escalates beyond control far too quickly, cutting off communications with the rest of the galaxy – and Vatta’s central headquarters. For Ky it will be the opportunity to truly grow into her own woman while trying to meet her commitments and stay true to her personal code as well as that of the family’s business: this will require some difficult decisions, at times even terrible ones, decisions she will face with determination and a strength of character that quickly endeared her to me, placing her among my favorite characters and Elizabeth Moon among my “must read” authors.
Speculative fiction abounds with plucky heroines who defy great odds and come out winning, but a good number of them suffer from pernicious impulsiveness that nonetheless seems to have no consequences: that’s definitely not the case with Kylara Vatta. She is young and inexperienced, granted, and she tends to trust people at face value, which in some cases brings negative outcomes, but she’s also capable of soul-searching and possesses the honesty of analyzing her past mistakes and learning from them. Her actions always have consequences – in some cases deadly ones – and Ky is not exempt from some darker tendencies, that help shaping her character into a more real, more believable one: there is one instance where she is forced to actually kill people, and when she does that, with a quick efficiency that she must have learned at the Academy, she accepts the thrill of satisfaction that comes with the act as part of human nature, as part of the adrenaline rush of the situation, and knows that this darker shade of her cannot be denied, even if it needs to be kept in check.
All this gives her a wonderful, multi-faceted complexity that together with her business pragmatism takes Ky out of the mere realm of fiction and endows her with a sense of reality that is like a breath of fresh air. What in other, less carefully crafted characters, might have resulted in empty stubbornness, here gives us a person who realizes she is not fully matured into the woman she wants and needs to be, but at the same time requires the freedom to make her own mistakes, learn from them and become a better individual because of those mistakes, and not in spite of them.
The same sense of realism at the core of Kylara can be found in the events at the core of the novel: for example, when the old ship starts breaking down, it stays broken – there are no miraculous engineering feats steeped in improbable technical jargon that make the problem disappear into thin air, like we are used to see in certain well-know tv franchises. Ky and her crew face real dangers: they could be stranded with no way of asking for help, with a broken drive, dwindling supplies and a sabotaged beacon, and it will take much ingenuity (and a good dose of sheer luck) to see the end of the proverbial tunnel. And again there are the economics of the far-reaching human expansion into space: contracts to be honored, matters of financing and of making the ends of a business deal meet; or the different social structures of newest, still struggling colonies against more established and wealthier settlements. All of this helps bring this fictional civilization into focus and makes the reader want to learn more.
At the start of this review I compared the overall feel of this story with Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe: though there are vast differences, both in background and in characterization, the… flavor – for want of a better word – is the same. In both cases we have a story about people, and the way they work to carve a place for themselves in a universe that wants to imprison them into a mold they don’t agree with; there is galactic strife mixed in, granted, but the human part is what matters here, not the technology or the dynamics of interstellar conflicts or the deployment of weapons. If what you look for in a space opera or military SF novel is this, if people count for you more than gadgets or battles, this book will prove to be perfect.