Volume 24, Number 04, Summer, 2006

Engaging the Enemy

By Elizabeth Moon

Del Rey/Ballantine, 2006
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2006

Engaging the Enemy continues Elizabeth Moon’s new Kylara Vatta series. Previous volumes have explored the conflict between mercantile and military ethical values, through the adventures of the protagonist, Ky Vatta, a young woman pursuing a second-choice career as a merchant captain after her expulsion from her home planet’s naval academy. Over the course of the series, the scope of the conflict has steadily widened, from the purely personal issues of the first volume to the small merchant and privateer fleets of the third.

Despite its title, though, this book doesn’t involve much actual engaging of the enemy. One of its major plotlines involves the gradual discovery that the scale of the threat is greater than was evident in earlier novels, and that several different problems that characters in those novels faced may have had a common source. Being at least somewhat prudent, the heroine tries to deal with these by regrouping and finding allies, with the goal of creating a unified fleet of privateers that can step in and suppress interstellar piracy. This leads to an actual space battle with a small pirate fleet in the final chapters—but one that appears more as a test of the privateers’ readiness for their self-assigned mission than as a strategically decisive action.

The attempt to create a privateer fleet gives rise to the other main plotline: the legal issues faced by the heroine. Privateers in this universe have a bad reputation: many jurisdictions consider them little different from pirates. Vatta faces threats ranging from being forbidden to discuss privateering to forcible seizure of her newly acquired combat-ready starship. Dealing with the legal issues hampers her efforts to restore the fortunes of her own family after a destructive attack on their corporate headquarters. Resolving them also leads to revelations about her family history. Moon takes advantage of the trial scenes to portray societies with exotic customs and laws.

Readers looking for a straight action/adventure story may find this book something of a disappointment; it’s much more about the legalities of warfare and ownership than about warfare itself. Readers of Prometheus may well find Moon’s treatment of these issues fascinating. The subordination of violence to law is the primary theme of this series, and Moon provides a variety of situations that test various ways of doing this. She also offers readers the pleasure of watching competent people do their jobs under pressure—a classic science fictional theme, and one with literary antecedents from Kipling’s stories back to Homer’s Odyssey. This series has continued to hold my interest; I’m hoping that the fourth book will show Vatta actually “engaging the enemy” in a big way.

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