Elizabeth Moon’s Marque and Reprisal is the second volume in the five-book Vatta’s War series, and I have just finished it to move on to the next in the series. Vatta’s War is one of my favorite military science fiction series largely because it is not exclusively military. The series follows the adventures of Kylara Vatta, a senior military cadet who is drummed out of the Space Force Academy in a face-saving operation. Her family runs a shipping empire, so to get her out of the press and give her something to do they send her off in a junker ship to sell for parts. True to fiction, nothing goes as planned from that point on.
Elizabeth Moon has been an established author for decades, so there is little to comment on about her craft. Her characterization is uniquely human in military fiction circles. Moon, a former Marine, has degrees in biology and history that she puts to excellent use in this series, woven as it is with socioeconomic necessities, logistical concerns like food, air, and payroll. Moon writes military fiction for the more mature reader. Technological innovation, bio-mechanical advancements to baseline humanity, and humods (a colorful plethora of custom-designed people) weave their way through the background without ever becoming irrelevant filler or taking over the plot. Vatta’s story could really have been told on 18th-century tall ships, which should delight David Weber fans.
Elizabeth Moon’s fiction does not, as it might seem at first glance, lack the sense of grandeur and wonder to be found with Weber, Bujold, and Ringo, but her story arcs are natural outgrowths of character’s lives. Ky Vatta is no Frodo thrown in among princes and wizards right out of his doorway. Like her superlative Deed of Paksennarion, Moon’s heroines begin as regular people, entry-level if a cut above the rest. They earn and grow their way into greatness, so that in the final chapters of Moon’s series heroines stroll through clashes of wonder on the solid foundation of their journey, never quite losing contact with the grounded realism that makes Moon’s fiction so believable. Her world-building is detailed, thorough, consistent, and enjoyable. I particularly like Vatta’s War’s structure of transport, multicultural exchange, and hyperspace communications.
Marque and Reprisal is a delightful book to re-read because it follows that first real sustained turn from civilian to heroine as trouble gets more serious on the spaceways. Ky is tested again and again, and by the end of the book it becomes clear that the life of a space-trucker is not her calling, but pirates and rebels are going to wish that it had been. This book is not space opera, with flashing super-powers, photon swords, foretold messiahs, or telepathic aliens. It is a smooth, rich buildup of military fiction to please anyone with time to put their feet up and escape reality for a while.
Vatta’s War is highly recommended.