After the delightful discovery of this series with the first book, Trading in Danger, I did not wait too long to read the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War, because my curiosity about the main character’s continuing journey needed to be satisfied. Sadly, Marque and Reprisal proved to be something of a disappointment, or maybe the victim of excessive expectations, because it did not meet the standards of its predecessor.
In the aftermath of the adventures in book 1, Kylara Vatta does not have time to enjoy her new-found independence and to settle into the role of commercial captain: violent, murderous attacks on all Vatta holdings throughout the galaxy hit Ky’s family’s commercial empire, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, enhanced by the extended sabotage of the ansible net, the faster-than-light communication system, which leaves isolated planets at the mercy of lack of information and wild rumors.
Ky finds herself cut off from any kind of help and must rely on her wits, her small crew and the help of the few friends she can find, namely the mercenaries she met in the previous novel and her cousin Stella, the family infamous black sheep: surviving the attempts on her life while staying financially afloat, and finding clues about the attacks and the people behind them, will require an even more difficult balancing act, and Kylara will need to grow a thicker hide and quicker wits if she wants to keep herself and what remains of Vatta in one piece.
With this kind of premise and the high stakes of such a situation, there was room for both action and some character exploration, but what I found was far less than I would have liked: for example, Ky’s family suffers brutally from the first wave of attacks on Vatta, but the drama of it is observed in a detached manner – for want of a better definition – lacking the emotional impact that such a tragedy entails. Granted, on Ky’s home planet of Slotter Key the remaining members of her family find themselves with little time to mourn the losses, because they must concentrate on keeping the business alive and on possibly removing the threat before it’s too late; and Ky herself learns of the attack after some time, due to the ansible sabotage, and therefore the impact of it all is lessened by the time factor, but still I would have liked to see some more evidence of grief and loss, instead of being simply told about their existence.
Stella’s introduction, on the other hand, is an interesting choice because it compares the different attitudes of the family’s two “failures”: Stella had been cut off from Vatta’s affairs after a massive indiscretion, and now – not unlike Kylara – is trying to demonstrate she’s outgrown her youthful silliness. While Ky works to show her competence has not been impaired by the good-faith mistake that had her thrown out of the Academy, and that she can learn from that mistake and better herself, Stella has learned to use her fiasco as a form of deception, as a mask for the cunning and skills she has honed since then. The moments in which the two cousins are able to compare notes, and to start understanding each other better, are among the best in the novel.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Stella includes that of Rafe, her former lover, and here the characterization fails a little, at least from my point of view: Rafe is the stereotype of the lovable rascal, the consummate ladies’ man no one seems able to resist; he’s the bad boy with his heart in the right place, the kind of guy every lady knows she should avoid, but is unable to. If you feel like rolling your eyes in exasperation, please do: I will join you gladly. What’s worse, Rafe is soon revealed as a skilled agent in disguise whose abilities would make the famous Swiss Army knife quite envious: think of an hybrid between James Bond, Montgomery Scott and Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver, and you will have an idea of his talents. Over the top does not even start to cover it…
As far as the story itself is concerned, if on one side there are some intriguing observations about people’s reactions in times of stress, on the other there are a few truly appalling conversations that are both infuriating and cringe-worthy, that gave the narrative its distinct unbalanced feeling. What I enjoyed was the general attitude of planetary governments and private contractors toward Kylara and her crew: once it becomes clear that Vatta is the target of an organization capable of extreme violence, everyone turns their backs on her and her family, as if afraid of being tainted by proximity. Nothing seems to penetrate this ostrich-like behavior, not even Ky’s quite lucid conclusion that the attacks on Vatta might be only the beginning and that others might find themselves in the same position sooner or later, that strength resides in banding together rather than closing one’s eyes and waiting for the storm to pass. As distasteful as it is from an observer’s point if view, this is also a reaction grounded in reality, and as such it’s an interesting commentary on human nature.
What annoyed me, on the other hand, is the paternalistic attitude that Ky is forced to endure from many sides: in her first voyage as a newly-minted captain it would have been understandable, particularly since an impulsive choice had been the reason for her banishment from the Academy, but now she has a successful – and very difficult – first run under her belt, one where she was able to show her mettle and the ability of thinking on her feet. And yet, more than once, she is confronted with the wrongly perceived inability to resist the lure of a pretty face, therefore losing any capacity for rational judgment: in particular there is a conversation with the mercenary commander, whose paternalistic attitude had me grinding my teeth in frustration, that made me wonder about the author’s intentions with that scene, because if it wanted to be humorous it failed completely for me.
It’s exactly this dissonance that prevented me from enjoying Marque and Reprisal as I did the first book in the series, the perception that somehow the standards achieved in book 1 had been… diluted. Still, I don’t want to give up on it, in the hope that the next books will recapture the “magic” that charmed me with Trading in Danger.