After the partial disappointment of the second volume in Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, I was eager to see whether that less-than-stellar book was just a fluke, or if the initial promise had really been so sadly reduced: I’m quite happy to share that the third volume in the series, Engaging the Enemy, rolls back on track in a very appealing way.
The story resumes straight from the point it had left off in Marque and Reprisal, making me realize that this is not exactly a series, but rather a long novel divided into five sections, and as such it might have its “down” moments, like it happened with book 2, while taken as a whole it creates an immersive story, one that deals with space opera themes from a different point of view. There are space battles of course, and intrigue, double dealings and betrayals (and pirates! Let’s not forget the pirates…), but above it all there are the economics lying at the basis of a space-faring civilization and they are explained through the day-by-day challenges faced by Ky Vatta and her crew, avoiding the danger of boring the reader with what might be otherwise dry facts. And of course there is a good deal of character exploration…
In the wake of the brutal attacks targeting Vatta headquarters and its ships, their commercial empire stands on the brink of failure, and it’s up to Ky and her cousin Stella to try and gather as many surviving vessels as possible to resume trade and put the company back on its feet, while back home Ky’s formidable aunt Grace (the true revelation of this book, character-wise) deals with the aftermath of the assault and takes the necessary steps to bring the perpetrators and their accomplishes to justice. For her part, Ky just realized that the attack on her homeworld of Slotter Key was only the first move of the pirate organization bent on controlling the galaxy’s trade routes, and at the same time she needs to deal with her newly-discovered killer instincts (born out of necessity, granted, but still worrisome in their intensity) and with Stella’s malcontent in having to play second fiddle to her younger cousin. As if that were not enough – and let’s not forget that the threats on the life of any surviving Vatta are still a clear and present danger – Ky encounters a great deal of resistance to her plan of gathering other privateers, possessing like she does letters of marque from their own governments, and creating a force able to deal with the pirates and protect the shipping lanes.
There is a huge amount of problems laying on Ky Vatta’s plate in this novel – from the mundane needs to refuel her ships and procure new and reliable crew, to the political obstacles she encounters in her dealings with various governments, to her own personal issues – and it’s good to see her practical, and sometimes ruthless, approach to them all, just as it is to finally witness some emotional fallout after the grievous losses of family and relatives, something that I sadly missed in the previous book. Despite her young age, and relative inexperience, Ky never forgets her duty as a commanding officer, and always presents a firm, competent front to her crew, keeping her inner troubles and doubts to herself, while at the same time she is not afraid of asking advice from more competent people when she needs it. It’s a well-balanced attitude that helped restore my confidence in the character, in the way she is handled, and to find her both believable and relatable, especially when she faces some ethical questions: in this respect there is a very interesting conversation she holds with Rafe, concerning the needs for self-defense and the ensuing violence, and the way they can affect a personality – or damage it – that serves both to illustrate the theme at hand (one that cannot find an easy answer of course) and to shed some light on Rafe himself, on what makes him tick, which ultimately helped to shift my viewpoint on him. Time will tell if that was only an isolated occurrence or if it’s the beginning of his evolution from a stereotypical lovable rogue to a more solid character.
Stella, on the other hand, seems to lose some of her previous charm: in Marque and Reprisal she came across as a capable individual hiding her remarkable skills under the guise of the clichéd vapid beauty, and back then it seemed as if the pooling of the two cousins’ very different resources would make for an almost invincible team. Here, though, Stella seems to suffer a slight meltdown as the childhood rivalries between herself and Ky resurface and cause her to act in a somewhat immature way – and all that happens long before some revelation on Stella’s past hits like a bomb, causing further damage. Perversely, it’s that shattering revelation that helps bring the barriers down between the two cousins and puts them on the path toward mending their fences, as they finally realize that different talents can be put to use in synergy and not in opposition. Still, it’s the younger Ky who finds the strength to act like a balanced adult, while Stella succumbs to temper tantrums: I very much look forward to the return of the woman we met in book 2, because I liked her a great deal more…
Story-wise, Engaging the Enemy is a novel with many souls: even though the title suggests a focus on space battles, this happens only toward the last quarter of the book, while the previous segments deal instead with a wide range of subjects from interstellar politics to commercial transaction to peculiar planetary rituals, and yet it never feels boring. Sometimes dealing with bureaucracy can feel as daunting a deep space adventure, as fraught with dangers as a trip into uncharted territories, and this is what happens to Ky when she needs to stand up to hard-headed functionaries or to prove her identity in the face of malicious accusations. This is what I believe Elizabeth Moon excels in: incorporate the mundane into her stories and make it appealing by adding some little human touches that transform those potentially dull details into something fascinating, and at times even scary, like the heavy stress on courtesy that’s at the basis of Cascadian civilization, for example, a side note that starts as a humorous commentary and in the end generates a chillingly unpredictable effect for a certain individual.
This third novel in the Vatta’s War series has the definite flavor of a story that has found its right course and promises to develop in exciting and engrossing directions: if the second book, from my point of view, did not fulfill all the promises of the series’ beginning, this one holds all the chances to turn it into a spectacular journey, one I’ll be happy to stay on board to discover.