Military SF Without the Space Battles: Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

It’s even odds whether Elizabeth Moon is better known for her fantasy novels or her military science fiction. Cold Welcome is an entry on the science fiction side of the ledger. In it, Moon returns to the universe of her Vatta’s War series, last seen in Victory Conditions (2008). And not only to the universe, but to the same characters: Kylara Vatta, now an admiral in the interstellar Space Defence Force which she helped to build from scratch; Stella Vatta, who now basically runs the Vatta family business from her headquarters on Cascadia; Grace Lane Vatta, Ky’s great-aunt, family terror, and now Rector of Defence for the planet of Slotter’s Key; and Rafe Dunbarger, who became CEO of the company that controls the ansibles and their FTL communications, thanks to his family inheritance, all return in starring roles.

If you’re expecting space battle action, though, you’re going to leave disappointed. Cold Welcome takes place almost in its entirety on the surface of Slotter’s Key.

Ky Vatta is returning home to handle some formalities related to her shares in the family business and the election of Stella as the new CEO. En route from orbit to the planetary surface on a Slotter Key military shuttle—offered to the visiting Admiral as a diplomatic courtesy she can’t really refuse—she runs into trouble. The shuttle has been sabotaged. And not only the shuttle—it soon becomes clear that the officers’ survival suits have been tampered with. Ky and her administrative aide, the middle-aged and very proper Cascadian lieutenant Jen Bentik, are the only officers to survive the crash, as a result of bringing their own survival kit. But the shuttle has ditched into icy winter water, in a region famous for its storms, near a landmass written off as a terraforming failure. And their communications devices have also been sabotaged. Ky has to keep her motley crew of Slotter Key personnel alive long enough to reach dry land—and on dry land, long enough to survive the winter—while dealing with the knowledge that the shuttle most likely had a traitor on board. A traitor who may very well have survived the crash and be waiting for their moment to sabotage everyone’s chances of survival.

Neither Grace nor Rafe have given up on Ky’s survival, though to everyone else it seems impossible. Rafe hands his company job over to his sister and goes undercover to Slotter’s Key. When he turns up on Grace’s metaphorical doorstep, the two of them hatch a plan to counter their enemies and bring Ky and her people home.

Cold Welcome is a very readable survival adventure novel with background politics. But it’s a survival adventure novel, not the space opera that I was expecting, and that’s affected my opinion of the book as a whole.

The survival parts are excellently characterised. Ky and her small crew of survivors—all of them bar her aide from a military in which she holds no rank—are cast adrift in freezing waters in a pair of rafts. She has to keep them focused on working together, when none of them have worked together before, and on survival. When they reach the shore of the (supposedly) barren and uninhabited continent, she keeps them moving forward and working, until she convinces them that they need to explore inland.

It turns out that the uninhabited continent is not so barren and uninhabited after all. It has wildlife. And it has a secret military installation of some kind, shut down over the winter—a secret military installation that might be run by same people that were part of the plot that killed off most of Ky’s family. Ky expects that when the weather clears, the military installation’s occupants will return prepared to kill off the survivors…

The characterisation of individuals, however, is fairly minimal. Characters from the Vatta’s War series are barely reintroduced, and if you haven’t read Vatta’s War, you might be forgiven for wondering a) who these people are and b) why you should care about them. Moon’s pacing is pretty solid, and the problems facing Ky Vatta—human and environmental—are fairly compelling. The political and undercover manoeuvring of Grace and Rafe is a lot less compelling, though, and the interludes which feature them, while providing an interesting counterpoint to Ky’s lack of information and survival-related concerns, feel quite formulaic.

On the whole, Cold Welcome is something of a mixed bag. If you’re looking for a survival adventure with characters you already know, it ought to be satisfying. If you’re looking for fun space opera with battles… that is not this book.

Cold Welcome is available from Del Rey.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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