I want to give this entire series 5 stars even though I probably won’t give any of its individual instalments that rating. Does that make sense? Vatta’s War is just such a fun and compelling space opera with a strong central character, and Elizabeth Moon is a great storyteller. I say this while simultaneously admitting that, even though I really, really enjoyed reading Engaging the Enemy, I don’t think it’s actually all that good of a book.
Yeah, this is going to be one of those reviews. Buckle up. (Spoilers for previous books but not this one.)
Engaging the Enemy opens with Kylara and Stella Vatta plotting their next move. Leaving Stella in command of the Gary Tobai, Ky departs for a system that is more likely to recognize her prize claim to the Fair Kaleen, which she wrested from her pirate uncle in the previous book. What ensues is basically Ky trying to get her prize recognized as legitimate while also forming a governments-funded space navy to fight the organized pirates that appear to be disrupting trade. Meanwhile, she leaves Stella mostly to fend for herself, which Stella doesn’t appreciate. And back on Slotter’s Key, Aunt Grace has to get all wetwork on government-sponsored assassins. It’s pretty cool.
This book’s strengths are similar to the previous books in the series. Moon does make anything easy for our protagonists. There are no convenient outs here, no crowning moments when someone waltzes in with exactly the right plan to save the day. If anything, the running gag in this book is that everything Ky does makes her situation worse—except that she continually manages, against all odds, to survive. I love these books because I love watching Ky struggle and agonize over her decisions, over the burden of command on her young shoulders, and most recently, the loss of her family. Moon sends her and her associates through the wringer, yet Ky still has only one thing in sight: stopping the people who started this mess.
On balance, though, I have to admit that there is little of note about this third book in the series. I mean, Moon basically relies on two things to stymie Ky: communication difficulties (or people not being in the right place at the right time) and other people being obstreperous buffoons. There is very little action here; most of the conflict comes from Ky navigating legal challenges, including dealing with the possibility that someone is going to accuse her crew of stealing a dog.
Also, not a big fan of the conflict between Ky and Stella. Its existence makes total sense, but the way Moon has written it makes it sound so contrived and really doesn’t do justice to Stella. Her attitude towards Ky is totally justified, especially considering the stress that both Vattas are under after the deaths of their family. Yet Moon essentially hands Stella the Idiot Ball to drum up enough tension while trying to get us to doubt whether Ky is even actually Ky.
So, yeah, I can’t pretend that this book is a masterpiece of plotting, conflict, and characterization. But I can’t deny that it still satisfied every space opera bone in my body. I curled up with this over the weekend and just revelled in the atmosphere of this universe. That’s the thing about science fiction: even the pulpy stuff (and, to be clear, Engaging the Enemy is far from pulp) feels so good. The very act of inhabiting a hypothetical future, of imagining space travel and space pirates and space … uh … legal wrangling … is such a fulfilling, stimulating experience. And despite perhaps failing to create a truly compelling story here, Moon still has this fantastic world.
And even though her actions aren’t all that interesting in this book, Ky herself remains a great protagonist. The major theme here is how to deal with having killed someone, with having to kill someone—and what you do when you discover that you liked it. Ky’s brain is basically asking, “What if I’m a bad person?” on repeat, and you can see this weighing heavily with her every decision. There is some great psychological tension here, and I’m not talking about the paternity plot.
There is so much here that Moon could have done better, but in the end … I just don’t care. Totally a fangirl.