A very welcome change in pace after reading a couple of historical fiction novels and a non-fiction book about sex! Trading in Danger is strategy-filled space opera. Kylara Vatta, or Ky for short, is a young woman kicked out of military academy for being a little too trusting. Relegated to commanding an obsolete ship that is on its last voyage as part of her family’s massive trading empire, Ky senses the opportunity for profit … and lands smack in the middle of a warzone. Elizabeth Moon brings us action scenes, introspection, and a nice sense of the scale of a galactic economy. It’s a little pulpy, a little classic, and a lot of fun.
The book hinges on whether you care much about Ky. It’s tempting, especially at first, to call her a Mary Sue: everyone seems to like her, and everyone seems to subtly give her a leg up. Even the mercenary in charge of the boarding party that boards her ship turns out to have a heart of gold when it comes to Ky. And she always seems to be able to wriggle her way out of whatever dead-end situation she finds herself in at the moment. However, Mary Sues warp the fabric of plot and space-time around themselves effortlessly, simply by existing. Ky, on the other hand, has to work hard at that plot warp. And that’s the difference: we get to see her agonize over her decisions. Moon explains how Ky weighs the variables. It’s clear that being the child of the CFO of a major shipping business means that Ky has grown up immersed in economics and trade. From the way she speaks to the way she formulates plans, Ky is all about that bottom line—it is, as she keeps saying, “all about the money.”
I suppose, then, it also matters whether you want your space opera to more like sword-and-sorcery, smash-and-grab, or if you don’t mind discussions of trade, profit, and interstellar politics. I’ve been playing a lot of Elite: Dangerous lately, a massively-multiplayer online space sim game. It has a background story of galactic politics, Powerplay, influenced by the actions that groups of players can take to prop up various political factions. I don’t participate in Powerplay myself, but I enjoy the flavour it adds to the background the game. Similarly, Moon manages to create the feeling of a much wider universe than she shows in this book, and with minimal effort. Take the ISC—InterStellar Communications Corporation. They have a monopoly on the ansible network (a standard FTL comms trope, thanks to Le Guin). They don’t do politics (hah), but if anyone messes with their ansibles, they bring the thunder and fury down on those ne'er-do-wells. And while these types of monopolies aren’t great in real life, I admit I like the absolutist feel of the sense of justice such powerful entities bring to a story (provided our protagonist on the right side of it, eh). There is nothing quite so satisfying as that feeling when the cavalry shows up and you don’t want to stand near the bad guys lest you get some of them on you when they get blown to pieces.
So there is a “cowboys who are making money in space” vibe to Trading in Danger, and I guess that’s why I like it so much. Moon might play fast-and-loose with a lot of the physics involved, but she still reminds us that space travel is an expensive and dangerous enterprise. Ky takes on crew from another ship that left them behind because it couldn’t afford to wait for a quarantine to be lifted—they were stranded in another star system! And when her ship acts as a holding vessel for the passengers and crew of some impounded civilian ships, there is a lot of talk of fuel ratios and food levels and rationing. As with most things SF, “realistic” is not the correct word here. But this is not a universe where there are magic solutions to every problem.
Ky also undergoes quite a journey in a short book. She begins as a brash, headstrong cadet being drummed out of the academy. She ends as a brash, headstrong, but much more experienced captain of a trading vessel. Along the way, though, we see her struggle with the conflicts between her lack of practical experience and the fact that she just happens to be good at confrontations. There are two running observations that people who encounter Ky make: firstly, that she is much younger than they expected; secondly, that she is oddly cool and calm under pressure for a civilian captain. It’s a dangerous combination, one easily underestimated. And I love that when Ky ends up having to use violence, and killing people, Moon keeps revisiting the moment. I love the admission that Ky liked the feeling of killing those people. It adds some depth to her character, reminds us that people are not simple, squeaky-clean heroes or dastardly villains. Ky is our hero, the one we want to cheer for, and she seems to be a good person in general. But we all have darker sides, parts of us that we keep locked down, except in emergencies.
I think the obvious comparison here is Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Ky is a bit like Cordelia and/or Miles: very intelligent, quick to act under pressure, well-connected but quickly finds herself cut off from those connections. This universe has a similar feel to Bujold’s universe, with various interstellar powers jockeying, mercenaries, trading vessels, etc. Both series are a lot of fun. It’s accurate to say I could barely put down Trading in Danger while reading it, and I am itching to read the next books in this series.