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.