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March 29, 2006

Engaging the Enemy

Kylara Vatta faces overwhelming odds trying to rebuild the family interstellar shipping empire and defeat the space pirates who killed her parents
Engaging the Enemy
By Elizabeth Moon
Del Rey Books
Hardcover, March 2006
416 pages
ISBN 0-345-44756-5
MSRP: $25.95
By D. Douglas Fratz
Kylara Vatta, aboard Fair Kaleen, the heavily armed merchant ship that she obtained by killing space pirate Osman Vatta, is preparing her crew and ship to engage in a war with the pirates who killed most of her family and crippled the Vatta interstellar shipping empire. Her cousin Stella Vatta is captain of an unarmed freighter seeking to engage in trade while avoiding the space pirates. Kylara goes from planet to planet, followed by Stella in her slower ship, escaping pirate attacks, obtaining weapons and ship provisions, re-establishing the Vatta trade routes and seeking information and allies to fight the highly organized pirate fleet. She learns that a man named Gammis Turek is organizing the pirates.
Few authors write better military science-fiction adventure novels than Elizabeth Moon ...
Meanwhile, back on the Vatta homeworld of Slotter Key, Grace Vatta, senior surviving family member, trained in covert military operations, is investigating who in the government sanctioned the devastating attack on her family and company. She plans a vacation to secretly meet with MacRoberts, a military intelligence operative, who tells her that he arranged for Kylara to be issued a letter of marque, authorizing her use of force on behalf of Slotter Key as a privateer. Grace barely survives an assassination attempt, killing three armed men, and teams with MacRoberts to purge the government of those who aided the pirates.

Kylara's initial attempt to organize privateers into a fighting force to oppose the pirates is opposed by planetary governments. When the Vatta ship on which Kylara made her apprentice voyage arrives, its captain questions Kylara's identity, and Kylara and Stella independently uncover evidence that he has been in league with Osman Vatta and the other pirates. The court trial to establish Kylara's and Stella's genetic identity uncovers startling information. Another Vatta captain, however, invites Kylara to join their small cadre of privateers from several planets to train for battle, but their training and initial battle fall far short of complete success.

Consummate military SF adventure

Few authors write better military science-fiction adventure novels than Elizabeth Moon, whose character-driven stories combine the strengths of Anne McCaffrey and David Weber with a touch of Lois McMaster Bujold and C.J. Cherryh. This third novel in the Vatta's War series builds nicely on the first two books, Trading in Danger and Marque and Reprisal, and builds great expectations for future novels in the series.

It is important to note, however, that this is science-fiction adventure, not hard SF. There are no new concepts here and most of the character and plot elements could have been told in a family saga adventure set in early 20th-century Hawaii, with the Vatta family as rich pineapple plantation and shipping magnates. To fully enjoy this type of adventure SF, the reader often must be able to suspend disbelief that, for instance, a long unanswered shortage of dog genetic material exists on a busy trading planet, or that computers on future interstellar spaceships cannot handle simple fleet formation maneuvering, requiring pilots to have the same skills as those of World War II fighter squadrons. The science-fiction elements and milieu are totally from the conventional interplanetary military adventure canon. But Moon does this as well as anyone, and the characters, especially Kylara, are eminently sympathetic. (Although it is somewhat disconcerting to see this likable young woman find in killing her enemies the same combination of titillation followed by guilty self-incrimination reserved in romance novels for sex.)

Engaging the Enemy, even more than most Moon novels, starts a bit slowly. The early portions spend significant time with Kylara and Stella inventorying goods, opening bank accounts, shopping for provisions, having lunch and conversing with their crews. It is evidence of Moon's significant writing skills that her narrative never actually becomes tedious, remaining quite readable throughout. The most compelling early sections in the book are those involving Grace Vatta, an enigmatic purveyor of inedible fruitcakes in earlier novels, who becomes a fully realized character for the first time. The ending of the novel, which involves Kylara's first attempt to organize a small fleet, is marvelously compelling, almost equal to the tense and exciting denouement of the previous book, where Kylara personally defeated Osman Vatta.

Engaging the Enemy is consummate military-adventure science fiction, with a distinctly female viewpoint, and further establishes Elizabeth Moon as one of the most accomplished authors in the subgenre.

In the Vatta's War series, the continuous story arc and sequential character development make it best to read the entire series for maximum enjoyment. —Doug