Thu
Jan 19 2012 10:00am

Horses, Aunts, and Space Battles: Elizabeth Moon’s Heris Serrano: Omnibus One

The Heris Serrano books — Hunting Party, Sporting Chance, and Winning Colours, now collected as Heris Serrano: Omnibus One in the US, and The Serrano Legacy in the UK — have been around for almost two decades. I read them first a little over ten years ago, and they’re forever impressed in my mind as Foxhunting! In! Spaaaaaaaace!

Which is not the most accurate synopsis of all time, but I think it captures the flavour of things pretty well.

Jo Walton has referred to these three books, which form a standalone trilogy in Moon’s larger Familias Regnant universe, as “Aunts in Space”, which is another way to capture the flavour. Hunting Party opens with Heris Serrano, ex-Regular Space Service commander, starting her new career as the captain of Lady Cecelia de Marktos’s luxury yacht Sweet Delight. Lady Cecelia is a wealthy eccentric with a passion for horses, currently inconvenienced by providing transport for a spoiled nephew. Herris Serrano is military to the bone, and deeply uncomfortable with being cast forth into civilian life. She’s determined to sharpen up Lady Cecelia’s crew, and she’ll take no nonsense from Lady Cecelia’s nephew and his odious friend. Hazards and horse-riding intervene, spoiled young nephews and their friends do some growing up, and a confrontation with a man-hunting admiral (and a spoiled prince) opens a political can of worms whose ramifications influence the course of the next two books.

Sporting Chance, the second book, has poisonings, politics, doppelgangers, smugglers, and enemy action. Lady Cecelia is poisoned into a stroke, and has to be daringly rescued by her young relatives: Heris Serrano must steal Sweet Delight and take Prince Gerel — a prince indistinguishable from his cloned doubles, a state of affairs which causes Heris no little headache — in search of medical treatment for his sudden, inexplicable stupidity. And Heris’ trust in her crew is shaken by betrayal masquerading as incompetence.

Winning Colours is a book of crises (and aunts) in which the consequences of Sporting Chance play out in political confusion and space battles. Lady Cecelia has decided to use her new lease of life to breed horses, always her passion, travelling aboard the Sweet Delight — which is now owned as well as captained by the inimitable Heris Serrano. Meanwhile, the monarchy in Familias Regnant space has fallen, their neighbours the Benignity is looking to invade, the formerly spoiled nephew Ronnie and his friends play Intrepid Investigators, and three older ladies (the aunts, including an Aunt Admiral) must resolve a political and medical crisis involving the drugs necessary for the process of rejuvenation — where the wealthy old can become young again, indefinitely.

As a collected volume, the Heris Serrano omnibus is the story of Heris’ vindication, and eventual restoration to the Regular Space Service; and the story of Lady Cecelia’s growth from slightly out-of-touch eccentric to someone who, while still eccentric, is very definitely in touch with what’s important. This omnibus is entertainingly full of bizarre family dynamics, people with strange and archaic hobbies, a touch of intrigue, and plenty of space and shipboard action. I can never quite get the hang of the cultural dynamics of the Familias Regnant, because we spend so much time in the company of the very upper crust, or the somewhat insulated echelons of the military, but the mannered, slightly Victorian air of plutocracy with noblesse obligé is fascinating to read.

And! It has older women everywhere. I hesitate to point out how uncommon this is in science fiction (and fantasy, too), but it’s downright refreshing to read about older women also being admirals, and tycoons of industry, and people with interesting hobbies, as well as having inconvenient nephews and annoying relatives. Moon does family very well indeed, a talent that makes her work stand out among space opera with military influences.

Horse-riding, politics, interesting characters, and things that go BOOM! What more could you want?


Liz Bourke is quite fond of horses and explosions. Although not exploding horses: that’s just cruel.

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10 comments
Iain Scott
1. iopgod
I do enjoy these, even if the numbers of kick-ass great-aunts does start to build up beyond all sane limits after awhile...
a1ay
2. a1ay
Jo Walton has referred to these three books, which form a standalone trilogy in Moon’s larger Familias Regnant universe, as “Aunts in Space

"Most disturbing, sir."
"Bally right."
a1ay
3. Megaduck
The culture of the Familias Regnant has always felt weird to me. I think it's because, ultimately, Moon is trying to portray a decadent and corrupt culture right on the edge of collapse. It still results in a lot of supposedly smart people making WTF decisions. (The entire back-story around why Serrano was originally kicked out of Fleet left me scratching my head a few times.)
Liz Bourke
4. hawkwing-lb
@Megaduck:

Yeah, there's more than a few points where I feel the same way.
Lawrence Hardin
5. lawrencehardin
This first trilogy in the Familias Regnant series is thoroughly enjoyable by itself. I reread it several times when it first came out even though a number of points bothered me as being too implausible. When I finally read the last book in the series and reread the whole series, I saw that Eizabeth Moon was resolving a number of subarcs that I had not identified while reading the books the first time, though I had noticed authorial emphasis on some points that did not seem to go anywhere in a single book. On the other hand, some of the problems with the universe were glaringly obvious. I really enjoyed it, but I recommend approaching the Familias Regnant series with a hefty suspension of disbelief. It uses a romantic British framework for the society which you have to accept, however unlikely, in order to enjoy this story. Which is a rousingly good yarn!
Maiane Bakroeva
6. Isilel
Well, I always thought that along with a legion of fearsome aunts, Moon also borrowed the Edwardian England that never was (but in space! and with some twists) from P.G. Wodehouse.
Liked these books a lot, even though they were somewhat undermined by very cardboard and mustache-twirly nature of the antagonists, IIRC.
John Hardy
7. screwtape
The Familias Regnant universe only really starts to make sense when you read the follow-on series as well, the four books in the Esmay Suiza arc: Once a Hero, Rules of Engagement, Against the Odds and Change of Command.

That's also when you realize that much of what Ms. Moon is doing in her SF world is exploring the consequences to society of ever-lengthening life expectancies.
Maiane Bakroeva
8. Isilel
And to Moon's credit, this exploration is more nuanced than the tired "long life is bad" sour grapes trope, IIRC.
These books are great fun and touch on interesting SF dilemmas, but the one-dimensional antagonists prevent them from greatness, IMHO.

Speaking about military aspect, Suiza's PoV in action in "Once a Hero" seemed pretty spot-on to me, but I have no experience, only other fiction works to compare to...
John Hardy
9. screwtape
@Isilel #8: Not surprising that Moon's books seem to get the flavour of military life right, including her characters' reactions during and after combat. (Her Paks trilogy contains more realistic military training and combat than most sword-and-sorcery fantasies too). According to her bio, Moon was a Marine Corps officer for a few years after university, and married a US Army officer right before he started his tour in Vietnam. She has since served as a paramedic for years with her community's volunteer ambulance service.
a1ay
10. Diane_D.
Elizabeth Moon is clearly into showing that woman aren't only interesting when they're young and pretty/hot. Her _Remnant Population_ depicts another would-have-been-"Red Hatter". And she's a great writer!

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