I couldn’t resist, guys. I liked Trading in Danger so much that I couldn’t wait any longer, so I got Marque and Reprisal when last I went to the library, and here I am reading it, almost two months to the day since I read the first book. Like I said on Twitter, Elizabeth Moon writes books that are like crack—except better, because it turns out that crack is actually very bad for you. The first book introduced us to Ky Vatta and provided an intense, compelling space opera. Marque and Reprisal follows up by hugely raising the stakes, dashing our hopes, and then twisting the story arc until you’re just as conflicted and exhausted as Ky.
When I say this book raises the stakes, I mean it raises the stakes. Remember that time in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when the Dominion occupies Betazed, and suddenly this war got real? Same idea here. In the first book, Ky was a screw-up, but she was a Vatta screw-up. She had a vast, well-connected, wealthy family supporting her. Moon jettisons that first thing with an attack on the Vattas that leaves almost everyone dead. Eventually, Ky is aware of three other Vattas who are still alive (two of them with her). Not only does she have to deal with the trauma of losing her father, she also has to get to the bottom of who (or what) is trying to kill the Vatta family, and stop it. Fast.
The first part of the book, with Ky on Belinta and then later at Lastway, drags slightly. Moon really doesn’t want to skip over large periods of time very often, so while the chapters are action-packed and bleed into one another, it also means time passes pretty slowly. It’s like a slightly less strict 24. Once Ky joins up with Stella and Rafe, however, things get really interesting. I don’t mind at all the way Moon works viewpoints other than Ky’s into the novel, because Stella’s scenes with Rafe and Toby help establish all these new characters. And I was surprised by how I didn’t find Rafe too annoying: it helps that Moon lampshades the “bad boy” character so much that it becomes a non-issue (especially, especially at the end there—oh my).
Stella’s addition to the cast deserves some attention. This is the first time we get to see Ky interact with any Vatta for a long time. Previously, too, the other Vattas were all senior to her. Stella is more her contemporary, and with the remaining Vattas presumed dead, they are pretty close to top of the command chain now. (Can we also get a cheer for just how wonderful all the diverse women in this book are? Stella the spy, Ky the captain, Quincy the engineer, Gracie the elder, even Mehar and Beeah. This book is not MilSF, true, but it feels MilSF adjacent, and it just goes to show you don’t need to stuff your cast full of testosterone.) Stella also offers a great contrast to Ky. Both have reputations as a result of their indiscretions and dishonour. Both misunderstand the other, partly because of those reputations, but also because they don’t know each other’s worlds. I love how Ky keeps deliberating over how much to confess to her cousin: how much should she hold back?
Ky’s moral dilemmas that made her so fascinating in the first book are back, and how. She straight up kills a guy in cold blood, and then she’s like, “I’d totally stop and enjoy this killing high I get, except I’m icky and have a mine to disarm.” That’s ultra-badass and, yeah, borderline psychotic (though to be fair, the guy had it coming). I appreciate, though, that Moon moves beyond the simple “I’m weirded out because I like killing people” dilemma. That was great for the first book, when Ky merely had to worry about the survival of her crew. As she shoulders the burden of rebuilding the Vatta trading empire and finding the source of this conspiracy, it’s only natural that she faces more complicated questions. Stella probably summarizes it best when she confronts Ky about the letter of marque and asks whether Ky’s first loyalty will be to Vatta or to Slotter’s Key, conjecturing that a time will come (if it has not already) when those two parties’ interests diverge.
It’s these underlying problems that really make Marque and Reprisal so satisfying. I mean, yes, on one level it’s just an intense SF adventure. There are EMP mines being slingshotted down corridors and out of airlocks, zero-G knife fights, and more mercenary brinkmanship. There are hints of subtle political machinations, the kinds that make me drool. But beneath all that, there are rich canvases of thought and feeling. These characters aren’t one-dimensional; this is not a Saturday morning cartoon. Beyond the sheer physical demands placed on them, I find myself just marvelling at the decisions they get asked to make (often on little sleep) and thinking that I probably couldn’t do what they do.
Finally, Marque and Reprisal kept surprising me. The narrative is so easy to follow, so simply told, Ky’s plans telegraphed completely … but Moon always manages through a spanner into the works somehow. The simple plans get more complex, and suddenly Ky (or someone else) is improvising. So while I predicted many parts of the resolution, I didn’t see all of it coming—but I certainly enjoyed the result! This, to me, is a win: I love it when books have the capacity to surprise me, especially books I think I have all figured out.
Marque and Reprisal is an excellent sequel to Trading in Danger. It basically replicates the elements of the first book that made it so enjoyable. However, it avoids the most common problems of sequels. Moon definitely doesn’t hold back and is not afraid to make permanent changes to her universe. Similarly, she continues to find ways to put her characters into interesting situations that reveal more about them, or motivate them to change. The result is that rare combination of a resoundingly fun adventure with profound moments and deep themes. It’s nothing less than I’d expect from the author of The Speed of Dark. I have a feeling I’ll be devouring the rest of this series in short order.