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Marque and Reprisal (given the somewhat more generic title of Moving Target in the UK) picks up the misadventures of trader captain Kylara Vatta following the nerve-wracking events of Trading in Danger. This time, the entire Vatta trading clan is under attack. Forces unknown — though not entirely unknown to us, as Moon identifies the villain by name at the beginning of chapter two — have launched an all-out assault on the family and its holdings, going so far as to bomb their homestead into rubble in a series of attacks that kill most of the family outright. The assassins seem to be well-placed, even able to intimidate what passes for government in Moon's future. With insurers fleeing in droves and bank accounts frozen all across inhabited space, what's left of the Vatta family is on the brink of ruin.

Who is doing this, and why? At first Ky thinks it's retaliation for her role in the events of book one. Whoever has taken out the family holdings has also deactivated the ansibles, positioned throughout space, which allow for FTL communications. The ansibles are maintained by InterStellar Communications, a monopoly many people despise. The Vatta clan has always been a staunch political ally of the ISC. It soon becomes apparent that what might be happening is an assault on the ISC in which the Vatta clan have been targeted as allies.

With most of her family dead or scattered, Kylara has only her crew, some paid help in the form of the mercenaries who assisted her in book one, and a cousin, Stella. Like Ky, Stella has had youthful mistakes to overcome and a dubious reputation to rehabilitate. Carrying an even more dubious reputation is Stella's ex-lover Rafe, a devil-may-care rogue so completely arch it's impossible not to roll your eyes at him every time he pops up on the page. Rafe is one of those characters who seems to have a line on everything that happens behind the scenes, no matter where or what. He's also the stereotypical bad boy whom any sensible girl should resist but none actually can. Rafe also has, shall we say, a special working relationship with ISC, and he becomes a shady but necessary ally as Ky and Co. undertake their mission to find whomever has attacked them and mete out vengeance.

I wanted Marque and Reprisal to be a whopping improvement on Trading in Danger, but it isn't. Considering what has happened to the Vattas and the subsequent dilemma that Ky must survive, it's a bit surprising the story's dramatic tension isn't stronger than it is. This isn't a bad space opera, just a disappointingly average one. The opening scenes are gripping, but then the book coasts. The narrative is talky. It's also throws around silly action tropes. Apparently Vatta's enemies have the resources and leadership to pull off a devastating series of surprise airstrikes against the family's home and offices, but when it comes to taking out Ky, the best they can do is employ klutzy would-be hitmen out of some bad movie. You know, the kind of guys who suddenly pop up out of doorways like Nazis in a video game, and get off a few rounds, missing by a mile, before being fragged themselves. I couldn't help noticing how these shooters kept to a faithful schedule when it came to springing their surprise attacks, timing them for those moments in the narrative when everything seems deceptively safe to our heroine, when suddenly...! I guess they read an early draft of the manuscript.

There is a hint of post-9/11 sensibility here in the way Moon depicts the aura of fear that becomes entrenched after the attacks. No one is keen to help Ky, everyone wants to circle the wagons and not expose themselves to violence as well. But it's handled superficially. Ky herself is still a totally likable heroine, and the story is readable, if not exactly a can't-put-it-down page-turner. Fans of Trading will enjoy it just fine, I'm sure. But it isn't the sort of story that will greatly expand the readership. Simply put, Elizabeth Moon has long proven she is capable of much better than this. I hope the next volume sees her making an effort worthy of Kylara Vatta.

Followed by Engaging the Enemy.