Engaging the Enemy
by Elizabeth Moon
Review by Ernest Lilley
Del Rey Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0345447565
Date: 28 March, 2006 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Kylara Vatta was born into a prominent shipping family in the Slotter's Key system. Since then she's gone off to join the space navy by way of the academy, where she was trapped in a scandal created to get her dismissed, been captain of a rust bucket (so to speak) and then one of the very few survivors of an attack on her family, which left their space shipping fleet scattered and communications between star systems shut down. On the plus side, she came out of the last book with a letter of marque from her planet's government, though there would be members of that government surprised to learn of it, and the freedom to take on pirates of the spaceways wherever she sees fit. Best of all, she's got a shiny new ship, courtesy of Osman Vatta, the real black sheep of the family, who went over to the dark side in a big way, but didn't count on Ky's military training or her resolve. During the process of taking the ship away from Osman Ky discovered one of those things that is bound to distress "civilized" folk, namely that she really likes killing bad guys. Evidently this is a classic source of conflict for those soldiers that find themselves with a taste for termination, so Ky spends a certain amount of energy wondering if she's a monster.
A lot of other people wonder what she is during this book too. When she shows up in a ship last known as a pirate vessel and claims it under both the fact that it was originally a Vatta fleet vessel and her letter of marque, it's all just too high handed for the first port she stops at, and winds up having to jump off to more lenient legal waters to re-register the ship. This begins a painful pattern of leaving her cousin Stella behind to fend for herself. Stella was once known in the family as only a brainless beauty, but is now pressed into service as Captain of Ky's first ship, which has been renamed for the crewman who lost his life in the takeover of Osman's ship. It turns out that she's not brainless at all, and if Ky got the killer instinct, Stella got the head for money. Between them they might just bring Vatta Transport back from the brink, especially if they can stop bickering with each other. First though, Stella will have to catch up with her troublesome cousin, who keeps jumping out of messes before she can arrive and charm the locals.
While Ky's new ship is laid over in the Cascadian system, where the folks are essentially uber-Canadians, polite to a fault, and tree lovers to a man, another Vatta ship shows up. Unfortunately its captain has it in for Ky, for a variety of reasons that get unpeeled through the course of the book, and he claims that she can't possibly be the real Ky, since he's sure she's dead. Too sure by far. In fact he suggests that since she's in Osman's ship, maybe she's really Osman's daughter. What Ky would really like to do is to form up a privateer fleet to take on the pirate fleet that she's seen building up, but first she's going to have to prove who she is, and to tell the truth, she's not quite sure.
Meanwhile back on Slotter's Key, the only survivors of the attack on Vatta HQ are "batty" Aunt Grace, her niece Helen and two children. Only Grace isn't all that batty really. Back in the first book she forced one of her famous fruitcakes on Ky, who found out that it was actually edible as emergency rations, but equally important contained a considerable nest egg in diamonds. Nutty as a fruitcake is just a cover Grace has maintained since her days as a guerrilla fighter in her youth, but she's been keeping her old skills sharp and now she's in for the fight of her life keeping her charges alive and getting to the bottom of the attack on the family. She's aided by MacRoberts, the academy officer that's been keeping an eye out for Ky, and together they might just be able to clean things up. Unless the assassins that the enemy keeps sending in have their way.
So we've got intrigue and adventure on several fronts, engaging characters all around, and by the way, a touch of romance here and there. My sole complaint is that the business of trading has taken a backseat to battling pirates. I really liked Andre Norton's Solar Queen stories, and the challenges of running a marginal trading operation strike me as more problematic than pulling off the odd military victory. On the other hand, it's fine space opera and plenty of fun to ride along with. If you miss Miles Vorkosigan's younger adventures, which I do, you need go no further than Ky Vatta's escapades to find a hero worth investing your time in.