When we talk about Science Fiction – at least when I do – I immediately think of space ships. Having established (for me) that given, SF seems to be a comfortable home for just about anything else. Romance, shape-shifters like werewolves, vampires, weird creepy things. As long as whatever it is can be explained scientifically (even if the science is beyond our current comprehension) it’s okay in SF. Vampires and shape-shifters could be aliens, weird creepy things could be alien weird creepy things – as long as it’s not magic or fantasy.
I guess one of the last things I expected to find in a space ships book was a strong story arc about a woman riding in fox hunts, much as depicted in the photo at the head of this post. But I have, and I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party.
For Heris Serrano, nothing gave her life as much meaning as serving the ruling Familias Regnant in the Regular Space Service. But after defying a vindictive superior officer in order to save the lives of her men—she’s cast off from the crew and finds herself struggling to retain her sense of purpose.
Now, she finds herself in the civilian world and at the helm of the ‘Sweet Delight’—an opulent interstellar space yacht owned by the wealthy, powerful and irascible matriarch Lady Cecilia de Marktos. After a disciplined life in the Service, Heris doesn’t anticipate having many problems captaining a flying pleasure palace.
But she didn’t count on her crew comprising some of the most incompetent degenerates she’s ever had the displeasure of commanding. Or that her predecessor had been using the ‘Sweet Delight’ for criminal enterprises…or that their final destination will bring Heris face-to-face with the man who ended her career.
This isn’t an action-packed story with danger at every turn – although the danger does happen further down the track. There’s no space battle. It’s very much character driven, with lots of extra interest as we wonder why Heris resigned from the Regular Space Service. She’s a member of a powerful military family, often referred to as the Serrano Admiralty and whatever she did has finished her career. She certainly hadn’t seen herself ending up captaining a rich old lady’s yacht.
Cecelia Marktos, having sacked her previous captain for making her late, isn’t one to accept Heris’s rules and regs approach to captaincy lying down. It’s fascinating to watch Heris and Cecelia move from mutual disdain through to respect and even friendship. Having lost a wager, Heris agrees to learn how to ride a horse using Lady Cecelia’s simulator and later ride in a hunt with her. In return, Cecelia learns about her ship, how it works, and how her previous captain and crew had taken advantage of her hands-off approach.
There’s lots of technical detail as Heris checks out the ship’s hydroponics and environmental systems, which have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous condition. Her investigations lead to animosity with some of the crew. Her insistence on holding emergency drills which involve Lady Cecelia and her four spoiled rich kid passengers creates animosity with the twenty-something lads and lasses – though not with Cecelia, who has been lumbered with them against her will. Ronnie, in particular, decides to pit himself against Cecelia’s ‘little captain’. There’s also lots of technical detail as Heris learns to ride, first on Cecelia’s very realistic simulator, then on real horses at Lord Thornbuckle’s property. The hunt is very much copied from traditional hunts held at aristocratic properties on Old Earth, which gives a hint at the politics of the Familias Regnant worlds dominated by well-bred, wealthy families.
Not being keen on hunting, Ronnie, George, Bubbles and Raffa sneak off in one of Lord Thornbuckle’s flitters for a jaunt to the islands where they used to camp as children. Things don’t go as planned and the four young people are forced to grow up – fast.
What makes this a compelling read is the characters and the unanswered questions. Why did Heris resign? The explanation comes out in dribs and drabs, in realistic discussions as the two senior women get to know each other. We learn more about Cecelia, too, an unmarried aristocrat who decided to make her own way against her family’s wishes. She’s the crazy, eccentric aunt who used to be a champion horsewoman and is now facing old age.
The four spoiled rich kids go on a journey, too. At first it’s easy to despise them. What is there to say about a young man whose favourite expression appears to be, “it’s not fair”? How can anyone take a girl with the name ‘Bubbles’ seriously? How can they survive when there’s no one to help them?
The story comes to a satisfying conclusion and the promise of a second book about Heris and Cecelia. Following the vaguely horsey tone, it’s called ‘Sporting Chance‘.