Review: THE LAST SEA GOD (The Bone War #1), by Ashley Capes

I received this ARC from the author, in exchange for an honest review.

In truth, I did not know whether the story spanning the books in the Bone Mask trilogy would move toward a sequel: at the end of the final volume, many threads had been carried to conclusion – some of them with a tragic epilogue – and the world seemed destined to find its way toward a sort of new balance after the widespread turmoil that had shaken it.  Still, other narrative paths had been left hanging, and from there this new Bone War trilogy takes its start: even though it’s a brand new narrative trail, I would not recommend starting from here, because its roots dig quite deep into what went before, and you will need that knowledge to move easily in this new territory.

Unlike the previous installments of the story, The Last Sea God follows a good number of points of view, some well-known, some new. Notch, the former soldier-turned-adventurer who played one of the central roles in the Bone Mask trilogy, does not find himself in a very good place: at the beginning, we meet him as he’s plagued by guilt for Sofia’s ultimate sacrifice, and tries to drown his sorrow in alcohol – quite a departure from the determined character we learned to know in the past.  The only way he can get out of his despondency is by launching himself into what looks like an impossible task: traveling to the Ecsoli’s land and find a way to reverse the Sacrifice required by powerful masks, so that he can assuage his remorse over having failed his duty to Sofia.  What he and his companion Alosus (a character I’ve come to care for quite a bit) will find there will be much more than he bargained for, both in the matter of acquired knowledge and in the way of what we might call foreign politics…

Flir, Notch’s long-time comrade, takes a journey back to her home of Renovar, to convey King Seto’s peace overtures after the failed invasion from a group of her own compatriots, and also to acquire some more powerful bones to replenish Anaskar’s stores, that have been almost completely depleted by the war with the Ecsoli – with the exception of old Argeon.  This path down memory lane is quite difficult for Flir, especially where her peculiar abilities are concerned, but this relatively minor discomfort is overshadowed by the discoveries she makes about her old home.  Her ambassadorial duties must soon be placed on a back burner when she finds out that there is something quite sinister going on, something that more than hints at sorcery, or worse.

Pathfinder Ain, of the desert-dwelling Medah, makes a welcome return here: after the first book, where he enjoyed one of the three main points of view, he was later afforded far less space than I would have liked, so finding him again here, and seeing him face a deadly threat to his people, more than made up for the past.   Having brokered an alliance between the Medah and Anaskari, he’s leading the extraction of more precious bones from the desert, when his village is attacked by a veritable horde of weird people, bent on stealing the bones he and his compatriots have excavated: it will fall to him, true to his Pathfinder duties, to forge a new road toward salvation and the solution of a new, terrifying mystery.

King Seto, for his part, looks like the living proof for the famous Shakespearian quote about the uneasiness of the head wearing a crown: Anaskar is still suffering from the Ecsoli invasion’s aftermath, and something nasty is brewing in the background, something that seems well beyond Seto’s ability to fully comprehend or stop.

The newcomers on the scene are Nia, of the grove dwellers, who we encountered before but too briefly to get to know her well, and Fiore, a Storm Singer in training, who despite her your age might prove pivotal toward solving the riddles that the new conspiracy based in Anaskar is laying on King Seto’s path.  Both of them provide further insights into what is happening, either in the grove or in Anaskar, where dark forces are clearly bent on subverting the attempts to return to a normal life.

There is indeed much to take in while reading The Last Sea God, and I needed all of my powers of recollection and concentration to juggle the myriad details that compose this story like a very convoluted puzzle.  The increased number of points of view did not help, either, and I must admit it felt as if the narrative focus became somewhat diluted if compared with the more contained solutions previously adopted.  The characters are literally scattered all over the world, where strange, often weird events involve them and create separate and apparently unconnected story-lines, and this time more than ever I had to “battle” with the difficulties presented by author’s narrative style, that is more discursive than descriptive, and therefore required me to pay increased attention to avoid being distracted and missing vital clues.

Of course this does not mean I did not enjoy the story, because I certainly did, but at the end of the volume I felt as if I had been presented with only a glimpse of things to come – a great number of things, to be precise – but no hint about how they all individually fit into the grand scheme of events, or where they were headed, and I confess that this left me a little frustrated, despite the certainty that in the end all will become clear. Sadly, patience is not one my virtues…  🙂

So, to end on a more upbeat note and remove that hint of frustration I mentioned, I want to spend a few words about the book’s cover, which is a departure from the previously adopted style, and shows a simple background – like fractured marble – on which the title draws all of the attention. From my point of view it’s quite eye-catching and it somehow sums up the core of the story, that of a world on the verge of breaking down because of a series of treacherous events. As they say, an image can be as powerful as words, if not more.


My Rating: 


Review: VICTORY CONDITIONS (Vatta’s War #5), by Elizabeth Moon

With this fifth volume Elizabeth Moon’s series Vatta’s War reaches its conclusion, and a very satisfying one at that.  Until now we have been following Ky Vatta, heir to a family of interstellar traders, who was expelled from the Space Academy because of a mistake in judgment and who tried to re-build her life inside the family business.  Faced with increasing challenges, including a vast network of pirates trying to take over space routes with the complicity of moles planted in various governments, Ky manages to gather around herself a fleet of former merchanters and privateers to fight the pirates, while gaining precious experience and skills that force her to grow well beyond her young age.  As Victory Conditions starts, Ky is ready for the next step in her difficult mission, that of taking on board various planetary governments and their fleets to repel the coming assault from Turek, the leader of the pirates and the man responsible for the massacre of most of her family on their home planet of Slotter Key.

This series is not, however, a one-woman show, and the action is equally divided between other characters we have met along the way: Ky’s cousin Stella has taken over the running of a company’s branch on the planet of Cascadia and is successfully juggling the family’s shipping business with the thriving new activity of manufacture and selling of a new communication device. Once Vatta’s black sheep because of a few youthful indiscretions, Stella is growing into her role of businesswoman and shrewd manager, earning the respect of surviving family members and associates alike.   On a different part of the galaxy, Rafe Dunbarger – estranged son of the CEO of ISC, the leading communications firm – went back into the fold once he discovered the takeover attempt from his father’s closest associate, attempt that included the kidnapping and possible extermination of Rafe’s own family.  Taking control of the company, and trying to eradicate the complex web of traitors (some of whom are in collusion with the pirates) and “simply” greedy executives, forces Rafe to discard his disreputable persona and to morph into a more stable, more dependable individual, even though he somewhat pines for the old days of freedom.

All the while, the constant threat from the pirates, whose infiltration of governments and manufacturing facilities speaks of a long, careful planning, escalates to open conflict, one that the “good guys” are not so sure of winning… The constant change of point of view between characters and situations makes indeed for a fast-paced story, one that fulfills all the promises of the build-up carried on by previous books.  And if the narrative is sometime slowed down by reiteration of well-known plot points (which for some instances happens more than once in the course of the story), it’s easy to forgive this misstep because the events succeed each other at such speed that glossing over these writing ‘hiccups’ requires no effort at all.  Vatta’s War is above all a space opera whose main goal is that to entertain the reader, and in this it reaches its goal quite successfully.

Where this novel works very well is in character exploration and development: Ky, for example, is not at all the kind of Mary Sue heroine who’s able to troubleshoot every problem just by batting her eyelashes. She has to work for what she obtains, and work very hard, more often than not leading an uphill battle against prejudice, not so much because she’s a woman (there are plenty of capable women in positions of responsibility in Moon’s world), but rather because of her young age and (wrongly) perceived lack of experience.  Ky Vatta is not afraid of shouldering heavy burdens, knowing that she will learn from them, and being aware that nothing comes without a price: there is a segment of the story here where we see her dealing with the aftermath of all that happened to her until that moment, a combination of the experiences that matured her and the painful losses that shaped her psyche even as they hurt her.  It’s an important part of the narrative, from my point of view, because it stresses Ky’s  basic humanity and fallibility,  while showing the potential for inner strength and emotional stability, the qualities that make her a convincing leader.

My opinion of Rafe changed considerably with this volume: where he earlier looked like the proverbial rakish adventurer, here (and partly in the previous book) he shows great determination to bring ISC up to speed, removing all the elements that leeched funds and credibility from the company and taking very seriously his duties to it and to his family, especially where his traumatized sister Penny is concerned. In a sort of parallel with Ky, he needs to overcome the wrong image the world wants to paint on him, one that is only in part the result of his swashbuckling life and instead owes much to the deceptive bad publicity artfully circulated to keep him away from his home world and the company.  The only segment where his characterization falters a little is in relation with Ky: while their mutual but unspoken attraction has been a subtle thread throughout the last three books, and it comes to the fore here promising future developments, it’s also at the root of a scene that demeans his maturity placing him on the same level as a hormone-crazed youth.  Still, like I said, it’s one of those elements readers can take in their stride when considering the entertainment value of the story, without being too troubled by it.

I’m glad that when I started reading Elizabeth Moon’s Cold Welcome, the first installment in the new series Vatta’s Peace, I decided instead to explore this first foray into Ky Vatta’s adventures, so that now I can move forward to the next books “armed” with the knowledge necessary to enjoy the story as it deserves. The journey continues, and it promises to be equally enjoyable…


My Rating: 


Review: COMMAND DECISION (Vatta’s War #4), by Elizabeth Moon

Book after book this series is taking shape and substance and this installment went a long way toward helping me forget the slight disappointment of volume 2, that I’m now regarding more as a case of “growing pains” than anything else.  Despite a few residual niggles, truly too small to spoil my enjoyment of the story, Command Decision turned out to be a solid, entertaining read.

In previous books, Kylara Vatta, whose family made a fortune with their interstellar transport business, was expelled from the SpaceForce Academy in the aftermath of an unfortunate mishap and went back into the family’s fold trying to re-invent herself as a merchant captain. An unprecedented attack on her home world resulted in the death of a huge portion of Ky’s family so she resorted to try and resurrect the family business while fighting the encroaching expansion of a pirate consortium.  In Command Decision, we saw Ky working to consolidate her small but growing coalition of merchant captains who choose to stand up to the pirates, but we are also afforded a wider view of the overall situation, discovering alongside the characters that the pirates are only a part of the problem, one that involves hostile corporate takeovers, political maneuvers and a generalized regression in the galaxy’s civilized dealings.

The shifting focus between the various situations keeps the pace lively and the story interesting, and in some cases it changed my opinion of previously encountered characters: a case in point is represented by Rafe, whose earlier appearance seemed to point toward a Gary Stu kind of figure, while here he takes on some much-needed depth and morphs into a very intriguing person.   It’s through Rafe’s segment of the story that we start perceiving the scope of what looks like a huge conspiracy to change the political and economical face of the galaxy: having lost contact with his family, he travels in incognito to his homeworld only to discover that his parents and siblings have disappeared and any inquiry on their whereabouts raises the interest of some unsavory characters.  There is a subtle irony in the fact that Rafe was sent away from home because of a dramatic incident that changed him profoundly, and now he’s his family’s only hope for freedom and safety: as I saw him struggle to resolve the situation without endangering their chances for survival, and while I learned what it meant to him to be perceived as a monster, I slowly warmed up to him and started to see the real person under the rakish façade, someone who can forget any bitterness at the unfair treatment received and risk everything for those he holds dear.  In a way, I believe that Rafe’s back story runs on a similar course to Kylara, since both of them needed to re-invent themselves after a traumatic experience, and that this element, rather than any form of mutual attraction, could be the basis for the future relationship that is at times hinted at as a possibility in the course of the story.

Stella, Ky’s cousin, is also slowly emerging from a trauma of her own, one that disrupted her sense of identity and belonging to the Vatta clan: while some residue from that shock might understandably linger, in this book Stella goes back to her earlier appearance, that of a well-grounded, no-nonsense person with a good head for business and the courage to try untraveled roads.  Having been invested with the position of CEO for Vatta Enterprises, she throws herself into the work leaving little or no space for doubts and self-recriminations, and the need to care for the underage Toby – another survivor of the merciless attacks on the family – seems to be what she needs for her newfound balance.   The most interesting comment on Stella’s transformation comes from Aunt Grace, the clan’s matriarch and a character I never see enough of, when she considers how those changes went even beyond Grace’s expectations, or anyone else’s for that matter.

But of course the main focus remains on Ky, even though she equally shares it with the others here, offsetting any danger of looking like the cliché do-it-all-by-herself heroine: she is still on a learning curve, but she’s gaining in assuredness with every challenge faced and overcome, and she’s also acquiring some of the toughness that’s required by her position, as demonstrated by the swift, uncompromising way in which she deals with the situation at Gretna station, whose inhabitants – already infamous for their racist viewpoints – have turned to fraud and slavery to increment their resources; or when she accepts Captain Ransome’s ships as part of the convoy, knowing that their inexperienced enthusiasm might prove fatal, but accepting the necessity of some “cannon fodder” on the front lines.   More importantly, Ky’s storyline serves to showcase the foolishness of corporate mentality and the blindness that can impair the smooth workings of a galaxy-wide service (like ISC, the owners of the communication network), making it the far-too-easy target of anyone armed with the will to take advantage of it: this is what makes this series different from other space opera settings, the mixing of the required adventure with some economic considerations and a few social commentaries that spice up the narrative and at the same time set it firmly into a very believable background.

Command Decision does still suffer from some slight problems, like a few repetitions of known facts and the tendency to slide into undue exposition; or again the instances (thankfully less marked here) in which Ky is accused – because of her youth and perceived inexperience – of being susceptible to girlish infatuations: the latter is what makes me grind my teeth in frustration every time I encounter it, making me wonder why the author keeps undermining her character this way.  That said, Vatta’s War is still shaping up nicely for what I hope will be a satisfactory ending, and a good introduction to the next series, whose first book I sampled before retracing my steps to the beginning.

My Rating: 


Review: MOON CALLED (Mercy Thompson #1), by Patricia Briggs

After encountering several favorable mentions about this Urban Fantasy series, I finally decided to see for myself what it was like, though not without a small measure of… trepidation, for want of a better word: my favorite series in this genre is Seanan McGuire’s October Daye, and that’s what sets the standards for me – a main character who’s strong but not superhuman, whose flaws don’t include reckless stupidity, and a story that gains new facets from book to book. Just to name the most important ones…

Well, Mercy Thompson promises to move along these lines, and even if this first volume was not a game changing experience, it piqued my interest enough that I’m willing to follow the protagonist’s journey: with a good number of books to look forward to, there is certainly room for all the improvements I can wish for.

Mercedes “Mercy” Thompson is a car mechanic and a very independent woman, but she’s also something else: a shapeshifter who can take the form of a coyote.  In Patricia Briggs’ version of the world, supernatural creatures have always existed side by side with baseline humans and only in recent times some of them have come out of hiding, albeit with mixed results: once the dust settled, and the wonder wore off, humans resorted to their usual way of dealing with the diverse – they gave free rein to fear, ignorance and bigotry.


It was all right for a fae to be an entertainer or a tourist attraction, but […] no one wanted a fae for a teacher, a mechanic, or a neighbor.


Those unfortunate enough to have come out in the open had to make themselves scarce, or go live in reservations – out of sight, out of mind. Business as usual on planet Earth…

Among those who did not expose themselves, besides the highest fae, are werewolves and shapeshifters like Mercy, although she’s a pretty rare specimen. Raised by an adoptive family of werewolves, Mercy knows a great deal about their social structures and behavioral patterns, so that she’s in the best position to offer aid to young Mac, a newly-minted teenage werewolf still dealing with his change and with other more pressing problems.

Asking her neighbor Adam, the Alpha wolf of the local pack, to help Mac, brings about a series of events that will put Mercy’s policy of “live and let live” to a serious test: an attack on Adam’s compound and the kidnapping of his teenage daughter Jesse will draw Mercy into a complex situation that will force her to re-evaluate her position and to face some unresolved issues from her past, while she tries to uncover what looks like a dangerous conspiracy.

The world-building in Moon Called is a fascinating one: the nature and pack mentality of the werewolves are explored at length as various characters come into play, and it all flows quite naturally alongside the story without interference from lengthy info-dumps or any slowing of the pace.   These creatures are not the mindless beasts we might have expected because they don’t lose control at each full moon (or at least they don’t once they have grown comfortable into their own… well, skin) but rather draw strength from it – in both human and wolf shape – and always fight to keep a balance between the two sides of their nature.  That fight has given birth to a set of rules that are ruthlessly implemented, because control has become the key to the survival of the species and to insure that their existence remains a secret.

This strict adherence to the rules has unfortunately fostered something of a backward mentality in the werewolves, the kind of mindset that can still be observed in some strata of the human population – through Mercy, the author does enjoy poking some fun at it, even though the smile is somewhat bitter:


Women’s liberation hadn’t made much headway in the world of werewolves. A mated female took her pack position from her mate, but unmated females were always lower than males …


A lone wolf is a male who either declines to join a pack or cannot find a pack who will take him in. The females, I might add, are not allowed that option.


In this world, Mercy is something of a free agent: not only because of her nature, but mostly because she values her independence, the need to make her own choices. I often wondered if early exposure to the life of a werewolf pack was responsible for this, since she refuses to be cast into any mold, to follow a set of rules that is not her own.  This attitude also colors her sentimental life, which I found quite refreshing: the presence of two attractive, powerful males who are interested in her does not lead – at least in this first novel – to any romantic triangle, and Mercy’s response to the two men’s possessive overtures, no matter how restrained they are, is to re-affirm her self-reliance and self-determination.  My hope is that, should a romantic thread develop in the future, this mindset will remain unchanged.

In short, I did enjoy Moon Called quite a bit: it was a quick, fun read and it managed to engage me even though I realize it was only laying the foundations for a more complex story, one that I expect will expand on the many seeds planted here, from the higher fae (or Gray Lords) urging the lesser ones to come clean while they stayed safely in hiding, to the vampires and their shady goals to werewolves’ politics and power plays.

There are really few criticisms I feel like expressing, namely the overly complex motivations at the roots of the mystery to be solved, which required some lengthy exposition I found slightly tiresome, and the cover art, that in my opinion did not catch at all Mercy’s character, her essence or the nature of the story itself – a look at the covers for the following novels shows that this is a recurring theme, one that seems to draw the attention away from the inner strengths of the character and instead focus it on the… outward ones.

I realize that it’s a matter of market dynamics, but still I can’t avoid thinking that it’s something of a misdirection, and that though it’s not an end-of-the-world issue, it should be addressed now and then.   Ok, getting off the soapbox now…  🙂

My Rating: 


Novella Review: PENRIC’S DEMON (Penric and Desdemona #1), by Lois McMaster Bujold

I must thank fellow blogger Mogsy, from Bibliosanctum, for mentioning this series in a post: Bujold is the author of one of my favorite SF sagas, the Vorkosigan Series, but so far I have not been as fortunate when I sampled her fantasy works with The Curse of Chalion.  So, when I heard about this cycle of novellas that promised at least some of the humor I had come to expect from the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan, albeit in a fantasy setting, I did not hesitate to try it out, and it turned out to be a winner.

The main character, Penric, is the younger son of a minor noble, on his way to a neighboring fiefdom for his formal betrothal to that lord’s daughter. While on the road, he and his retinue happen on a group of distressed people: their charge, a priestess of the Bastard god, has fallen suddenly ill and they are seeking help.  Penric, a person of good disposition, kneels near the dying woman and tries to comfort her by holding her hand, not knowing that elder Ruchia is host to a powerful demon who gets transferred to Penric as Ruchia dies.

Being the host of a demon means a huge upheaval in Penric’s life, not because demons are inherently evil, but because now the young man will be able to work magic and as such, for example, he’s not good husband material anymore. While he tries to come to terms with this and the other changes, Penric gets to know his newly acquired demon, who is a mixture of the personalities of all previous hosts (including two animals, by the way): the only thing all these personalities, that survive through the demon as a sort of collection of memories, share is that they were all female, and the fact that Penric is not gives way to a number of humorous – and for him highly embarrassing – situations.

The element that I most enjoyed in this delightful novella is the juxtaposition between Desdemona (the name bestowed on the Demon by Penric, with a gesture that is unheard of and quite appreciated by the recipient) and the young protagonist: the demon’s great store of experiences gathered while moving from body to body and Penric’s essential naiveté make for a great contrast that fuels most of the narrative and helps define his character in a very promising way.

As a beginning to the two unlikely companions’ adventures, Penric’s Demon looks quite promising, and more than worth some further exploration.


My Rating: 


THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!


My Rating: 


Review: ENGAGING THE ENEMY (Vatta’s War #3), by Elizabeth Moon

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.


My Rating: