Oct 23 2009 2:09pm

Aunts in Space: Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano series

There are some kinds of books where I either don’t want to read them at all or I desperately want to immerse myself in tons of them. I hadn’t re-read Elizabeth Moon’s Serrano books (now available in omnibus editions as Heris Serrano, The Serrano Connection and The Serrano Succession) since I first read them all in one gulp. They do a lot of things right. They’re military SF with good adventures, a believable and effective military, and a much better done background than you often see in this sort of thing. I like them, they’re a lot of fun, and it wouldn’t take much for me to really love them, the way I love the Miles books or Cherryh’s Alliance Union series. They’re very good, and I thoroughly enjoyed them, but they fall short of brilliant.

Each book has an exciting adventure plot, but there isn’t really an overall plot arc to the series. The ongoing theme is the way rejuvenation affects society. The Familias Regnant is a hereditary oligarchy with a king, occupying several hundred planets. Ordinary people—well, ordinary planets for that matter, have a patron family who is Seated in Council to speak for them. There’s a largely hereditary space fleet, which they need, because they have active enemies, the Benignity of the Compassionate Hand on one side, the Bloodhorde on another, and the various split planets of Texans on another, as if they didn’t have enough internal dissent, piracy, traitors and mutiny for anyone. Fortunately they also have a border with the civilized Guerni Republic, the only place in these books I’d be willing to live.

No real spoilers.

As well as making the military very realistic, Moon does well at a number of things. First, this is a pleasantly multicoloured and multicultural future. The Serranos are black-skinned, the Suizas are brown-skinned, other families are described as being other colours. The cultures are the cultures of the distant future—these people left Earth a long time ago, and there tend to be planetary cultures with some roots on Earth, rather than Earth cultures. They do work as genuinely diverse planets with different languages, accents, and priorities. The planetary culture we see most of is Brazilian-derived Altiplano. Also, I like the way that are terrorists are from a Texan-derived planet, and that the Familias have problems distinguishing it from the half a dozen other Texan-derived planets. Oddly, when people were asking about multi-coloured futures I didn’t see these mentioned, nor did I remember that about them.

Along similar lines to the cultural diversity, I like the way they have fashions—not just in clothing, but fads—a generation ago there was a fad for giving children odd names, like Brunhilde and Raffaele, rather than normal names like Gari and Tighe. There’s a fad for horse-riding and horse-breeding, a fad which one of the characters is really into, but, realistically, a lot of others find extremely boring. Things change. Events in earlier books have long term repercussions. Generations have different ideas. And there are a lot of older people, especially older women. This is notable because it’s really unusual. Several of the major characters in these books are old women. There’s an ongoing riff on the fact that many of them are aunts, involved in the lives of their nephews and nieces. Some of them are rejuvenated and look young, others aren’t. It shouldn’t be unusual to have older women with their own spaceships, older women who are admirals, chemists, competitive riders, etc, but it really is. Moon also does well at making families feel like families, with the kinds of sibling rivalry and generational infighting that families have, along with closing ranks against outsiders when necessary.

The reason I don’t love these books is because they have too many points of view. Moon will give any character a point of view if it’s useful to the plot for the reader to know what’s going on there, or why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing. This tends to make the focus diffuse. I don’t care about all the characters equally, and if I do get to care about a minor character I don’t then want them to be killed or their point of view abandoned once they’re not relevant any more. They’re all over the place. I wish Moon would write something like this in first person, or in very tight third from one point of view only, or two at most. Moon writes really well when she doesn’t get too diffuse, she’s really good at doing points of view. There are a couple of times where characters have horrific things happen (but don’t worry, they get better) and she’s wonderful at getting inside their heads in awful situations. 

My favourite is definitely Once a Hero, and a lot of that is because it’s much more focused, sticking closely to Esmay Suiza for most of the book. Of course, the other reason I like Once a Hero best is because it has a really awesome repair ship that’s so huge ordinary space cruisers can fly inside it. It’s realistically easy to get lost in. Reviewers tend to say things like "Exciting action, I couldn’t put it down" about books like this, because if you say "There’s this awesome repair ship," people tend to look at you funny. Nevertheless, there’s an awesome repair ship, and you get to spend a lot of time there so that when there’s a battle you understand completely what’s happening.

So, there’s lots of action-adventure, there’s mature reflection on action, there’s romance, there’s rejuvenation and the problems it causes society if the rich are going to live essentially forever, and there are young people growing up and finding love. They’re fun.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Christian P. Robert
1. xiancpr
It´s a very interesting set of comments that relate to my experience with Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarion and Gird series. I first bought The Deeds of Paksenarion on a winter weekend in Ithaca and could not let it go. The central character was complex and has defaults as well as qualities, the society and the logistic of the military orders was well-constructed and highly realistic, and it remains a favourite of mines that I re-read at regular intervals. I then read the two following volumes that aimed at explaining the religious backgrounds of the trilogy and they felt terrible, so I never read them again.
Rick Rutherford
2. rutherfordr
"The Familias Regnant is a hereditary oligarchy with a king, occupying several hundred planets."

Wow, that's some king... ;)

The thing that has always bothered me about Moon's writing is that the heroines always have something really horrible happen to them in their childhoods.

I mean really, why couldn't Esmay Suiza have been a happy, normal little girl who wanted to go explore the stars? Did she really need to have been abused to make her more of a heroine? IMO it adds nothing to the character or the story, and makes me wary of reading any of Moon's other works.
Del C
3. del
"The Bloodhorde" makes me think of the Mitchell and Webb SS officers sketch. "Have you noticed our caps, Hans? We've got *skulls* on our *caps*! Hans... are we the baddies?"
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Del: I'm pretty sure the Bloodhorde know they're the baddies -- but I do generally like the variety of bad guys in this series.
Ole Anders Bae
5. OleAnders
Once a Hero is a book that is almost brilliant. Yet in the last chapters it does a Hollywood and goes for a sugared ending that I did not like. As for the other Serrano books especially before, but also after I find them OK, but nothing more.

I still think The Deed of Paksenarrion is the only great thing Moon have written*. However I have not read her latest, Vatta's War. Should I?

*While I do love Sassinak, I do not think I can call that great.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Ole: I think it's reasonable to say that if you don't like the Serrano books, you won't like Vatta's War either.

Her really outstanding book is The Speed of Dark which I reviewed here a while ago. It's a long time since I read the Paks books, and I have only read them once. I should get to them again next time I'm in that kind of mood.
Rob Barrett
7. Rob Barrett
Her Remnant Population is also outstanding.
Harriet Culver
8. Aitchellsee
With regard to there not being an overall plot arc to the series, I think that's because the series, much like the repair ship Kosciusko, grew as it went along and had whole new wings welded on in the process, so that none of the older schematics really match up with later versions.

The first three volumes (compiled in Heris Serrano) always seemed to me to have been a nice self-contained story arc, kind of a romp, a fun frothy read, with enough deeper issues showing through for the characters and the universe to make it REALLY fun.

And then it grew, and got darker and deeper in the process, but as Moon herself has written, the original worldbuilding for Familias Regnant space was never intended to bear that level of expansion, and she took it about as far as it could go.

I love the Heris Serrano arc, and I love the Esmay Suiza saga, and I loved the way she wrapped it all up at the end, but I do feel it's a bit of a chimera.
Beth Mitcham
9. bethmitcham
I find the badness of the bad guys a bit tedious. I'd like there to be a few less of the torture & rape for the fun of it types. She does petty evil fairly well; the bit where Bunny is safe on board and no one thinks to hand her a sheet of paper, for example.

There's going to be new books about Paksenarrian (well, about what happens next), and I'm looking forward to them eagerly. You might time your reread around that.
Iain Scott
10. iopgod
@Aitchellsee :"the original worldbuilding for Familias Regnant space was never intended to bear that level of expansion, and she took it about as far as it could go."

I thought that the world building managed to hang together for nine(?) books very well, and still left me wanting more, while the I found the Vatta's War background (presumably intended from to support a series from the start) to be lacking something.
Rob Barrett
11. DaveF

I agree - one is left expecting to find all the bad guys have twirly moustaches.

I also find I can't really believe in a space-faring society whose members all seem to have the impulse control of a three year old, and who, as you say, seem to value torture, rape and destruction above anything constructive.

Not that there weren't some great high points as well - enough to get me to buy the whole series.

Speed of Dark, Remnant Population and the Paks trilogy are her standout books, IMHO.
Rob Barrett
12. Allyson E.
I sink into Elizabeth Moon’s Esmay Suiza, Serrano, and Vatta novels time and time again. Love her stuff. Her Paks series is also an amazing achievement. I’m far fonder of her central character Paks and her evolution, than the medieval-ish, farmer/soldier dichotomy of the Paks-Gird universe. Still, I’ll happily buy her new Paks-ish books. Her novel Speed of Dark was a revelation– and a public service in showing how her young autistic lead character thinks, reacts, and views the world.

Love Jo Walton’s very accurate “Aunties in Space” observation. Moon has all these sharp, fascinating “older” women as real players in both the Serrano/Suiza (Lady Cecilia, Miranda, Esmay’s Landbride grandmother, that Professor of Texas history) and Vatta (Aunt Grace) universes – and that fabulous old lady in Remnant Population.

They routinely drive, direct, frame, and impact the storylines--sometimes with more heart, brains, and passion than the front-and-center lead characters (Esmay, Herris Serrano, Brun Meagher Thornbuckle, and Kylara Vatta).

The observation about the heroines surviving some horrible trauma plus betrayal is also dead on – hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Esmay in a childhood assault in wartime that her family pretends never happened, Herris’ unfair forced resignation from the Fleet – and her family’s lack of support, Brun’s hideous ordeal in New Texas and picking up the pieces after her dad’s assassination, and the brutal attack on Ky’s family. And of course, Paks' rise, tragic fall, and touching resurrection.

Moon is a sophisticated, delightfully inventive, deep world-builder with a raft of fascinating characters. Her stuff moves, and she pulls you right along. She’s terrific at showing how unaddressed flaws in her various societies’ political/social/legal structures have dangerous--even fatal--consequences.

To me, she's right in there with Lois McMaster Bujold.
Rob Barrett
13. patacacia
"The reason I don’t love these books is because they have too many points of view."

How odd. One reason I love the series is that they have so many points of view. I guess if you're the kind of person who prefers to see the world from only one viewpoint, you wouldn't be able to handle that.

I do agree with you that the number of older women in the stories is a Good Thing. Not that I had noticed while reading.

Having read all seven books in one sitting, I can say that they're great, somewhere between Harrington and Vorkosigan in quality. The main characters here actually make mistakes.

The one life lesson I'll walk away with from the books - is Gussie's lecture to Barin on different hierarchies amongst different communities in life.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go mourn at the lack of an eighth book.
Kate Nepveu
14. katenepveu
I've just read the first two (technically re-read, since I own the first two, but I didn't remember a thing about them), and you're right, they do do distant-future cultures well. When the characters talk literature, for instance, they talk almost exclusively about names _we don't know_, which is too darn rare.
Rob Barrett
15. mdauben
The thing that has always bothered me about Moon's writing is that the heroines always have something really horrible happen to them
Indeed, this for me was the downfall of the whole Familias Regnant series for me. In particular, I found the story in Rules of Engagement so replusive and unpleasant that it single handedly put me off the whole series. Despite all the things that Ms. Mood does arguably quite well (characters, world building, plotting), her need to visit and revist the subject of that particular book (which while the worst example is not by any means an isolated occurance) has driven me away from most of her writings. :-(
Rob Barrett
16. hanako
Don't most heroic characters suffer painful setbacks of some sort? That's generally part of the heroic arc, no? Admittedly childhood sexual trauma is much more common in heroines than heroes, but it's only Esmay who has that as an issue iirc.

What bothered me about the Serrano books was the feeling in the later stories that entire planets, or worse, entire SPACE EMPIRES, were about the size of a small town in England. People would wander over to the neighboring empire and just happen to bump into everyone else that happened to be visiting said empire. This does not compute.

Then again, based on the number of relations everyone seemed to have perhaps the space empires here really are meant to be only a few thousand people!

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