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Engaging the Enemy
Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey, 416 pages

Engaging the Enemy
Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon grew up in south Texas, 250 miles south of San Antonio and eight miles from the Mexican border. She attended Rice University and joined the US Marines in 1968. With a second degree in biology, she entertained thoughts about going to med school after her husband, but circumstances intervened.

Elizabeth Moon Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Marque and Reprisal
SF Site Review: Trading in Danger
SF Site Review: Speed of Dark
SF Site Review: Once A Hero
SF Site Review: Rules of Engagement
SF Site Review: Remnant Population

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sherwood Smith

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This is a middle book. Engaging the Enemy, third in the Vatta's War series, begins abruptly in medias res. Though I think a new reader might figure out what has previously occurred to Ky Vatta, the main character, some of her associates -- particularly the sardonic, mysterious agent named Rafe -- just appear, with no physical description and minimal back story. Rafe is a key player, but I suspect a new reader would be puzzled to figure out his place in the story until near the end.

If you haven't read the previous books, Trading in Danger and Marque and Reprisal, and you don't like any hint of spoilers, stop reading this review and get the first two books!

Brief recap: Ky Vatta and her cousin Stella are, as far as they know, the only survivors of the powerful interstellar trading company Vatta Transports. In the previous book (Marque and Reprisal) they discovered that the rest of the family was murdered in a coordinated attack by pirates in league with the government of their home planet, Slotter Key.

They've also discovered that pirates are conquering other planetary systems, first by destroying the ansible network that connects them, then by brute force. The pirates already control at least a couple star systems. So far Ky has escaped a couple of assassination attempts. She recaptured one Vatta ship after it was turned into a pirate by a rogue Vatta, Osman. She discovered that the Fair Kaleen has intership ansible capabilities, a first. Until now the ansible platforms have been controlled by the somewhat mysterious ISC, of which Rafe is apparently an agent.

In this third volume, Stella is made captain of Ky's original ship, and sent to trade. Stella finds herself hop-scotching system by system after Ky, dealing with the troubles Ky has stirred up in various ports. Meanwhile, unknown to the cousins, their tough old Aunt Grace, back on Slotter Key, is spying on the turncoat President -- and watching the assassins who are watching the survivors of her family. Everyone thinks Grace is a doddering old woman, an impression she works to foster -- until she is forced to take on an ally and then to act.

Ky is determined to organize traders and mercenaries into a space navy in order to fight the pirates. She meets resistance by people who don't believe her -- or don't want to believe her. Meanwhile, she's got problems with Stella, with whom she doesn't always get along -- and events move too quickly for them to have a chance to work things out. The accelerating speed of problems having to do with pirates, the ansibles, and the reactions of various planetary ports to the word about pirate attacks do not help, nor does the presence of the mysterious Rafe on board Ky's ship -- the same Rafe with whom Stella had once had an affair.

Another Vatta turns up, but he is no ally. This is an angry cousin, Captain Furman, who had given Ky trouble before, and who now insists she is the illegitimate daughter of Osman, and no true Vatta at all. Solving this problem leads to some unexpected twists; new discoveries change everything, and the nascent space navy faces battle far too soon.

This is the kind of space opera I love best: complicated, fast-paced, full of nifty sfnal tropes that have interesting consequences. Political shenanigans complete the big picture, but Elizabeth Moon never forgets the small, human moments, like the planet whose people are desperate to get dogs after a disaster wiped them out. Moon gives the reader a convincing picture of the problems besetting a bunch of independent governments, made up of ordinary people and not battle-tech super-heroes, who have no desire for a space navy or any notion of how one might be created, but realize slowly that there is a need.

Moon also gives us glimpses into the Vattas' changing emotional landscapes. Ky has to deal with self-discoveries that knock her moral compass askew, leading to the question: just what does make a good commander... and how can one define good, when the aim is to kill? Stella has her own issues to deal with. She's a trader, she wants to trade, not to fight. Stella is ambivalent about her own motivations and intentions: she has always been the beautiful one, using her looks to smooth her path. Though she resents the reactions she gets, she finds herself continually having to rely on her face and charm in order to solve problems. Grace is simply wonderful -- Moon is especially good at crusty old bat characters. Rafe is almost a non-entity in this book; my interest in him was carried over from the previous volume. There is a strong hook near the end that makes me hope he'll play a major role in the next, if not end up with a book of his own.

In short, I recommend this series to anyone who likes space opera, particularly those who, like me, enjoy Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden universe. But don't begin with this book!

Copyright © 2006 Sherwood Smith

Sherwood Smith is a writer by vocation and reader by avocation. Her webpage is at www.sff.net/people/sherwood/.


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