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Vatta’s War

There’s something to be said for patience. Or for grim determination. Whichever you think best suits the situation. Sometimes, you endure something unenjoyable simply because you’re committed to an overarching principle, and in the end, the investment of time in that unenjoyable stint results in blossoming appreciation for some later point. That’s pretty convoluted, isn’t it? So let me say this. I watched Battlestar Galactica, the new series (I watched the old series, too, but that has no bearing on this tortured explanation). When we got to the “New Caprica” arc, I was not on board. I didn’t exactly hate the New Caprica episodes, but I really disliked a lot of them, especially any of them that spent way too much time (which would be any time) with the “Starbuck in her apartment prison” subplot. I grew increasingly impatient with the storyline. But then, just when I was on the verge of pronouncing this a “Babylon 5, season five clusterfuck,” we got the episode where Galactica — and Pegasus — undertake their fiery rescue of the New Caprica colonists. Now that whole bit — that was just some of the greatest television, ever. And I realized after the fact that it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful or exciting if I hadn’t sat through the New Caprica episodes. Those episodes were the back-breaking hoeing of the field that eventually bore the delicious fruit of that Galactica-Pegasus rescue mission. And then, suddenly, all those other episodes were worth it.

I tell that story because exactly the same thing happened with the “Vatta’s War” books. It was when I was looking for new (to me) science fiction and space opera to keep me occupied on the lengthy train ride to and from work each day that I first had author Elizabeth Moon recommended to me. Now that I’ve finished the entire five-book run, I can look back with some amusement at how lukewarm my reaction to the first book was, versus how much I like the series as a whole. This is, at least in part, because each book just barely works as its own self-contained story. The series is much more effective when you regard it as a single book that, in deference to considerations about someone’s ability to cart around a sprawling 2,000 page cube (Neal Stephenson, of course, has no such consideration for his audience), has been split into easier to digest volumes.

Moon began writing professionally in her 30s, drawing on her background as a dual degree holder in both history and biology, as well as being a former Marine lieutenant. Her first book was published in 1988, and by 1997, she’d picked up her first Hugo Award, for the novel Remnant Population. In 2003, her novel The Speed of Dark won a Nebula Award. For my immediate needs, she had/has two long-running series that looked like they would appeal to me: the Familias Regnant series, and the Vatta’s War series. I did my usual amount of research on the subject — which consists of looking at the cover on Amazon and thinking, “Yeah, why not?” — and decided to plunge into Moon’s most recently complete series, Vatta’s War.

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Trading in Danger is the first book. Vatta is Kylara Vatta, a promising cadet at a military academy — at east until the book has gone on for a page or two, after which she finds herself expelled for some ridiculous business in which she played a minor, unaware role but never the less turned out to be the most convenient fall guy (or gal) in the ensuing PR fallout. Depressed and feeling stranded once she returns to her wealthy family’s estate, Kylara is given a job her father and uncle hope will snap her out of her deep blue funk. The Vattas own one of the biggest interstellar shipping company’s around, and they have an aging hunk of junk that needs to be piloted out to a distant system and sold for salvage, making a few deliveries along the way.

Kylara reluctantly accepts the assignment and is assigned a small crew of seasoned space vets who will help her learn the ropes of being a captain. Kylara soon becomes obsessed with figuring out a way to save the old ship from getting scrapped, hoping that she can make enough money along the way to afford to refurbish the ship and call it her own. When the opportunity comes to make a boatload of extra cash by accepting a new contract at her first port of call, Kylara takes it, even when the planetary government refuses to pay anything up front. They are good for the payment upon completion of the delivery, but not having any of the money before means that Kylara is stretching her finances beyond their breaking point. When the ship’s FTL drive breaks down in orbit around the planet at which they’re supposed to pick up the shipment, Ky and the crew have to hustle and shuffle to afford both the equipment they need to purchase and resale and make the repairs the ship needs before it can depart.

And then the war breaks out.

When two planets start taking potshots at each other, Kylara’s ship is stranded in the middle of things. Terrorists destroy the satellites that relay communications throughout space, meaning that she can’t even call for help. When a group of mercenaries show up, Ky suddenly finds her crippled ship being used to house the captains and officers of other ships that were caught in the middle of things and could get away. Some of the captive captains are blowhards. Some are pirates. Some are involved in a conspiracy they’d rather no one else found out about. And some are willing to mutiny and kill Ky and her crew to cover things up.

Here’s the thing about Trading in Danger — it’s not that great. And it’s not that bad. As the first book in a series, it does just enough to convince me that I’m interested in reading the next book while failing to make me all that excited about the book I just finished reading. It’s populated largely with stock characters, but they are executed well enough that I didn’t mind. The big problem with the book is that so much of it is dedicated to talking, sitting around, and waiting — but never about or for anything interesting. Meetings with bureaucrats, meetings with lawyers, meetings with this person or that, and none of them really have much point beyond padding things out. Nothing interesting comes of it. Trading in Danger seems to be spinning its wheels most of the time, never going anywhere and never rewarding the patience of the reader with a satisfying payoff.

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When the finale finally comes, it is so low-key that I wouldn’t have even realized it was the finale if I hadn’t been able to see there were only a few pages left. Instead of building slowly, then suddenly speeding up for a big jump, Trading in Danger is sort of like riding a bike very slowly toward a very modest ramp that lets you jump maybe half an inch off the ground. Sure, once you’ve made the jump, you think, “Yeah, I guess that was OK,” but it could have and should have been much better. To make the limp finale even more disappointing, the final chapters of the book are composed of Kylara telling various people what just happened, which means we have to read her recounting the book we just read multiple times to assorted supporting characters.

Still, the book is not entirely without merit. I thought Ky was a decent enough character that I want to read the next book. And Moon’s background as a former Marine means that she can get inside the head of a military cadet and the mercenaries that show up in a way many authors can’t. Like I said, it does just barely enough to keep me interested. What’s funny, though, is how quickly my opinion of the book began to change once I moved on to the second in the series, Marque and Reprisal.

Marque and Reprisal picks up almost immediately where Trading in Danger leaves off, with Ky polishing off her mission to deliver all that ag equipment. But right in the middle of that, system ansibles across the galaxy begin to fail, and Ky is cut off from her family and HQ on Slotter Key. What she doesn’t find out until much later is that the entire Vatta organization has found itself at the center of a vicious assault. The headquarters is bombed, as are the homes of employees and any ships that the unknown assailants can get to. Ky herself is attacked multiple times, though Ky being Ky, she’s able to extract herself from the situation while leaving a corpse or two in her wake.

Trading in Danger felt like we were loitering on the tip of a more interesting story’s iceberg. Marque and Reprisal makes good on that suspicion, and before too long we discover that what happened to Ky and the crew of the newly renamed Gary Tobai was nothing but the opening rumble of a fairly vast adventure. If you were, like me, wondering where the space opera was in Trading in Danger, well, here it is. The first book was really just the first tiny part of the story, and while it was a tad on the dull side while I was reading it, I was suddenly finding myself appreciative of the foundation laying it did. That investment of time really begins to pay off as I worked my way through Marque and Reprisal.

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It’s a considerably more expansive adventure, not just in the number of planets and space stations that are visited, but also in the number of characters who step up to center stage. Ky still remains the focal point of the story, but supporting characters get a lot more time and development chief among those are Rafe, a roguish hustler who is actually working for ISC in the capacity of an industrial spy. He finds himself thrust into Vatta’s War when assassins attempting to kill the sole survivor of a Vatta ship bombing — a teenage boy — drive the kid and his would-be savior to Rafe’s storefront. Also joining the fray is Stella, Ky’s cousin and as much a family black sheep as Ky herself, though for different reasons (those involving a misguided love affair that enabled a guy to steal a fortune from Vatta). She also happens to have had a previous relationship with Rafe, and while the coincidence that delivers her and the young teenager Toby to Rafe is pretty hard to swallow, it’s one ill-fitting piece among many, and it’s well worth just rolling with it.

And then there’s crazy ol’ Aunt Grace, the doddering old fruitcake baker who seems such a minor character in the first book. Once the attack on Vatta’s begins and claims the lives of most of the senior employees — including Ky’s mother and father, as well as her uncle/Stella’s father — Grace decides to drop her cover and reveal herself for what she is: a war veteran and the current, ruthless head of Vatta’s internal intelligence organization. While Ky has to stumble blindly from one assassination attempt to the next with no idea what’s going on, Grace decides that the best course of action is to root out those responsible for the attacks — the scale of which couldn’t be accomplished without complicit conspirators within the Slotter Key government — and extract violent — preferably fatal — revenge.

Eventually, Stella catches up with Ky, the MacKenzie mercenaries show up again, and the scope of the plot begins to gel. Ky and MacKenzie both hire themselves out to escort a train of skittish merchant ships, and along the way, Ky and Rafe both begin to suspect that the attacks on Vatta, the galaxy-wide communication failures, and the uptick in pirate activity are all related. Then shady, mysterious Osman Vatta shows up.

Marque and Reprisal is light years more enjoyable than Trading in Danger, though it wouldn’t have been so much better if Trading in Danger hadn’t taken the time to set the stage. The second book still has some of the flaws of the first (and those flaws continue to manifest throughout the series), specifically the tendency to present us with a pretty interesting conflict, then have Ky or someone else explain that situation in detail to various people throughout the book. It is, of course, the sort of thing that would believably happen, but as readers, all it means is we have to read multiple similar descriptions of an event we’d already read about in the first place. We could definitely have used a simple, “She told him the details of the encounter.”

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And there’s also the tendency to dwell acutely on inconsequential minutiae and the filling out of forms. Although the book is pretty well packed with action, that action screeches to a halt so we can do things like spend several pages on Ky shopping for ship crockery. Pretty much every detail of purchasing ship crockery is laid out for you, even though it has no real bearing on the plot (the crockery itself becomes a minor incident when it’s used as an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle a spy device onto Ky’s ship). It reminded me of Ian Fleming’s tendency to write at great length about whatever new subject he’d learned about or been told about during small talk at a party, no matter how little it had to do with what James Bond was actually doing int he book.

The pace and scale of the series continues to quicken and expand in book three, Engaging the Enemy. Stella attempts to rebuild the Vatta business, despite ansibles still being down, while Ky decides that what the universe really needs is a multi-system space force that can deal with the piracy and attacks now spreading like wildfire. Rafe, meanwhile, suspects that the fact that ansibles are being repaired at such a sluggish rate — and that many were sabotaged in ways that point to collusion on the part of ISC employees — points to something very rotten at the corporation. Throughout this and the next book, Command Decision, Elizabeth Moon reveals the full spectrum of what’s going on, and once again, it wouldn’t be so interesting if we hadn’t started out with such a humble, poky story as Trading in Danger. Ky struggles to stitch together a cohesive space force using the privateers and remnant security forces of disparate and sometimes suspicious systems. Stella continues to rebuild Vatta, while Rafe dissects and attempts to do the same with ISC, discovering along the way just how rotten to the core the powerful company had become. And all of them have to deal with the growing pirate navy that is running roughshod over the whole galaxy. It all comes to a head in Victory Conditions, the final book in the series and a fitting conclusion to what ends up being an exceptionally rousing space opera.

Despite my initial reaction to the first book, I ended up loving the series. Most of the characters are one-dimensional, maybe two, but I don’t mind since Moon explores those dimensions so well. OK, except for the eventual main villain, who is never more than a howling cartoon character on someone’s view screen. What he wants and why he is who he is, is almost totally unexplored. But I was able to deal with that. I’ve always said of movies that I don’t mind stock characters and formula when it’s well-executed, and that’s what Moon does. There are no big ideas — this isn’t Alastair Reynolds or Verner Vinge. But as somewhat simplistic, action-adventure, Moon’s series may start off with a slow burn, but once it catches on, it’s highly enjoyable, with doses of space opera, military sci-fi, political thriller, and a detective novel. I’m really looking forward, now, to starting in on the Familias Regnant series as a follow-up.

3 thoughts on “Vatta’s War”

  1. Alright, here goes….
    Am I the only person who is sick to bloody death of being told “you can’t get it from just one episode, you have to follow the six-season/six-book arc and then you’ll understand. There’s a reference in episode two of season four that you need before this line makes sense”. Or, if I’m in a bad mood, has “character-based narrative” just come to mean sloppy soap-opera plotting?

    Y’know the way that hardcore and thrash was supposed to cleanse away double concept albums, and we’d never have to endure “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” or “Tales from Topographic Oceans” ever again? Why am I getting deja vu?

  2. To a degree I agree with you, but I don’t think comparing a TV series to a book series is quite a one-to-one. I hear “the first 150 episodes are terrible, but after that it gets really good” in relation to anime series somewhat frequently. But does that mean the first 150 episodes are really TERRIBLE, or does it mean they are a slow burn, perhaps where little happens but plot and character is laid down and things are interesting if not action-packed? If it’s the latter, then it’s worth the effort I think. If it’s the former, then I am with you — 150 bad episodes is a bad show. I’m not going to stick with it.

    The second difference is that 150 episodes is what? 75 hours of your life? That is a lot. 150 pages in a book is, again, what? Maybe 90 minutes to two hours of your life? I am much more willing to stick with a book than with a show, because I can make a lot more progress with a book, so if it is a slow start, then it’s no big deal.

    In the case of Vatta’s War, it’s not that the first book is bad; it’s simply slow, and not that compelling — but it is compelling enough to get me through and make me want to read the second one, and it’s essential to building this conflict that starts tiny and seemingly insignificant and eventually explodes on a galactic scale.

    Other times, though, I agree with you, although unfortunately, usually with a series that starts out great then falls apart. The Wheel of Time series was a lot of fun for four books. Book five was terrible. Book six was almost unreadable. And there’s like seven or eight more after that. I’m out, man. I’m not going any further. Similarly, I thought A Song of Ice and Fire books 1-3 were fantastic. Book 4 was terrible. A Dance with Dragons was one of the worst books I’ve eve read, so bad that I think I am done with the series unless I hear of dramatic and sweeping improvement in the next volume. And it’s not because the book was slow or “nothing happened.” I can deal with that. It’s because I thought the writing, the plotting,t he characters I’ve previously liked — everything was horrible.

    Ultimately though, I think an author has a right to ask readers to invest time in a series that has to be built over the first couple books. If those books are slow but catch my interest, I’m in. If not, well then you are right — an author can ask us to invest that time, and we can elect not to. That’s the beauty of having so many options from which to chose.

  3. See, you sold it to me.
    “slow” or “nothing happens” isn’t the problem. My favorite things are the ones that takes ages piling the bricks up above my head, and then letting them drop on me. What I’ve got sick of is build-up then no payoff at all. In any case, if you’re telling me that the slow bits are world-building and background to the conflict, then I’m on board.

    Thanks!!

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