Thursday, May 23, 2013

Trading in Danger

This is a little older than my normal window, but Gamer Dad recommended it in high school and then the infamous Smartypants and Cookie Monstress passed it my way again. It was more fun this time around, and I'm tempted to hunt down the rest of the series.

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Moderate (357 pages)
Publication: August 31, 2004 from Del Rey
Premise: Kylara Vatta was headed for a promising military career until a single mistake forced her to resign from the Academy and go home to her family of traders. They send her on a simple errand while the scandal dies down-- all she has to do is take an old ship away and sell it for scrap in another star system while working with an experienced crew. But she soon sees an opportunity for trade and finds herself in far more danger than she could have found with the Academy.
Warnings: one fairly nasty death scene
Recommendation: If you're looking for space opera that revolves more around trade and cunning than the normal running battles, give Trading in Danger a try.

What sets this one apart from most space opera:

Ky Vatta spent most of her life insisting that she wanted to go into the military for adventure and risk, and her training had her well on the way to becoming a good officer. When she makes a small mistake that publicly embarrasses the Academy, however, she's ordered to deliver her resignation and leave immediately. Going back home puts her in the center of relatives who were always convinced that it wouldn't work, and she feels trapped in the same confines of her childhood. Her father's solution is to put her on a ship for an easy mission that will take about a year to complete while things quiet down....and to offer her the post of captain. The mission itself isn't prestigious, but being a captain in the Vatta family offers her prestige and much more independence than she thought she would get after her failure. Once she's out on the mission, she enjoys the opportunity to bargain and almost immediately takes a detour for a trading venture that would make money for the family as well as helping out a struggling colony world. It's not the military career she dreamed of, but that training stands her in surprisingly good stead when a crisis leaves her ship and crew trapped in a dangerous system.

This balance of civilian situations and military calm works surprisingly well-- Ky has to project confidence as a neophyte captain when more experienced people end up aboard her ship, and even ordinary situations call on every ounce of patience and discipline she can muster. Negotiating in the name of the Vatta family is also more  of a challenge than he had anticipated. She's new, and that leaves her banging her head against everything from stubborn governments to a more senior family captain (more on him later). The life she's leading isn't one she would have chosen, for all the potential prestige of running her own ship, but each step in the chain of events feels like real problems piling on each other in the most frustrating or dangerous possible way rather than intrigue leading up to an enormous battle, and that difference shines.

There's a tendency in many flavors of space opera to dismiss civilian affairs as being less important or interesting than anything going on in the military, or even to make the military the only venue of significance. Elizabeth Moon, however, is willing to develop explanations of negotiation tactics, trade reputation, ship repairs, civilian contracts with mercenaries, and even budgeting to make running an entirely unarmed ship seem just as high-stakes as any military operation. In fact, the military doesn't even really appear after Ky's initial expulsion from the Academy. The Vatta family as a whole contributes to this entertainment-- Ky is nervous at first that her unauthorized trade deal will upset the crew keeping an eye on her, but it turns out that unplanned adventures run in the family. Her family gives her the resources to succeed and then leaves her to stand or fall on her own instead of trying to control her. Testing the young potential captains to see what they do is a family tradition, which gives the bustling family, even people who only appear for a few pages, the mark of a free-wheeling code of honor that demands far more than Ky ever noticed as a child so desperate to leave home.

Once Ky is out and alternately negotiating and battling to survive, creativity is the order of the day. She has an experienced crew to draw on, certainly, but she makes most major decisions on her own, from the simple trade agreement to wrangling a more complex contract with a mercenary group that leaves her the choice of working with them or having her ship impounded. Each new event leaves her crew involved in something new, rolling with the punches in a way that seems all the more real because of the way Murphy's Law crashes in at every opportunity. Her quick decisions earn her respect on all sides and open doors for her: some of the mercenaries even express interest in her joining up if she's ever interested. She could stay with her crew and trade, try to move up the family ranks, become a mercenary, or investigate the odd puzzle given to her by an Academy officer on the way out. Some series of this nature try to lock down a character's path from the beginning, tracing out a Horatio Hornblower-esque career path, but it's hard to guess where she'll be at the end of the series, and that suspense makes a lot of this click together.

The red pen:

Ky's mixed feelings about the danger of the military and the more independent but less thrilling nature of commerce make for some great scenes, but the contrast falls a little flat when she thinks about it too hard. She feels guilty about her subconscious love for danger, in large part because giving in to that would love her crew in danger, and that's interesting until she gets angsty or tries to overcome her love for danger with starry-eyed idealism that doesn't quite fit despite her youth. Thinking that "despite her inexperience, she was convinced that no one else could commit any more deeply to her ship's welfare" undermines all the little ways that the narrative already shows that. Ky is ready to apologize for her errors and take advice from her crew, striking a good balance between appearing confident and asking for whatever help she needs, and all of it helps her youth feel like a non-issue. She's untested in many ways, but she has the discipline to do what needs doing...and then she starts thinking about the importance of human heart-to-heart linkages and it just doesn't work at all. 

Fun though it is to read a book almost entirely free of sappy romantic entanglements, Ky feel isolated on a personal level from more or less everyone. Emotions generally flatten out when they're bouncing around the echo chamber of just one person's head, and this is no exception. She misses her family and her former significant other, and is upset at the prospect of any member of her little crew getting hurt, but she keeps her more emotion-laden thoughts and decisions to herself, and that can make for some long-winded internal monologues. Even in the middle of more trivial moments, there's some awkward phrasing: bits like "She had not thought that far. She felt stupid that she had not thought that far" feel almost painfully clumsy. Ky is intelligent and thinks well on her feet, but when she spends too long away from conversations with her family or crew, the narrative can fall into the habit of talking about her thoughts instead of just letting them move across her mind.

That isolation also means that it's hard to get to know the secondary characters well; Ky has a little time to talk to her father, who is by far the most entertaining of her family, but otherwise people come across as closed books. Her mother fusses, her great-aunt burdens her with fruitcakes, and her crew members talk to her only briefly and treat her more as their captain than as a friend, which is sensible but leaves some of them feeling interchangeable. They seem fun at first, when they're congratulating her on her trade venture and confessing that they'd had bets on how long it would take her to diverge from the plan, but once things turn dangerous she snaps into the loneliness of command. Furman, a senior Vatta captain who is sent to help Ky late in the game but ends up berating her instead, is the only secondary character who feels out-and-out unrealistic. He knows that she's been in the middle of a war zone and kept her ship intact, but he greets her with shouting and demands to follow his order and never backs down from that an inch. It's difficult to believe that someone with no flexibility whatsoever in negotiation or conversation approach, even over the course of days or weeks, could have risen to a position of prominence in a family that otherwise seems to have an above-average regard for common sense.

On the whole, Trading in Danger is a fun adventure that offers a great change of pace from more weapons-heavy science fiction and space opera. There are a few rough spots, and Ky is the only character in the bunch who stands out as memorable, but if the series opens up a bit to some worthy sidekicks, it could move from good to excellent. This opening volume does a much better job than average of using the opening plot to establish long-running enemies and opportunities for intrigue without tangling up in itself, so odds are I'll pick up the rest of the series one of these days.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Vatta's War series, which continues for five volumes and concludes with Victory Conditions. Elizabeth Moon's other work is split between science fiction and high fantasy, so try out her different genre writing.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Grand Central Arena by Ryk E. Spoor is much longer and takes a different worldbuilding tack, but the dynamic of Ariane being forced into command and having to make delicate negotiation decisions above and beyond what she bargained for has a touch of Ky to it.
~C.J. Cherry's Downbelow Station has more military elements than Trading in Danger, but it also blends in a healthy dose of politics, economics, and characters from all stripes of life stepping up when a peaceful space station becomes the centerpiece of a war.

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