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Once a Hero
When the captain of junior officer Esmay Suiza's ship treacherously fled the climactic battle at the end of Winning Colors, Elizabeth Moon's third Serrano book, a bloody mutiny left Suiza in charge. Instead of running for help, she returned to the battle and singlehandedly saved the day (and the planet Xavier, and Heris Serrano's butt). Once a Hero begins shortly after the victory, as Suiza is taken to Fleet Headquarters to face a court martial for the mutiny. I found the Serrano books uneven and frankly rather dull, but in Once a Hero, Moon returns to writing the sort of protagonist that made the Paks books so appealing: a naive but supremely talented young soldier.
The court martial is just a formality -- mostly -- but Fleet's gratitude for Esmay's heroism is tempered by bureaucratic indignation that she performed so brilliantly in battle after being evaluated for years as "steady but mediocre." For her part, Esmay is uncomfortable with the role of hero. To escape the public eye, she returns to her home planet for a month of leave. The family tensions and buried childhood traumas she faces there are a bit melodramatic for my taste, but fighting with her family is the first activity in which she shows much personality.
Upon returning to duty, Esmay is assigned to the huge Deep Space Repair vessel Koskiusko. Shortly thereafter, they receive a distress call from a patrol ship that has been badly damaged in a skirmish with the Bloodhorde, vaguely Nordic space-faring barbarians of the sort one expects to grunt in monosyllables and pick their teeth with splinters of their enemies' bones. When the Koskiusko ventures out to repair the patrol ship, it becomes vulnerable to sabotage by Bloodhorde infiltrators and faces even greater danger from the ships of Bloodhorde raiders.
The story did bruise my suspension of disbelief here and there. On a ship that has Admirals and Commanders stuffed into every corner, the senior officers have a ridiculous tendency to step back and let Esmay, a lowly Lieutenant, run things in a crisis. Of course, they're wise to do so, as Esmay is implausibly quick and accurate at figuring out what's going on. The small band of Bloodhorde commando thugs wreaks havoc in the large repair vessel so efficiently that they've obviously seen way too many Steven Seagal movies.
Despite this, it's a fun read. Esmay is pathologically repressed and insecure, but she's earnest as a collie and just as likeable. There are some very gripping scenes, most of which involve Esmay walking around on the wrong side of a hull. The planets and people have depth, but the story doesn't bog down in the background detail. And it's a nice change to see the workings of a space navy through the eyes of a junior officer instead of a lofty captain.
I think fans of Moon's Paksenarrion trilogy will enjoy this book, and I'll cautiously recommend it to Honor Harrington fans who can stand a hearty dose of psychological melodrama. If you haven't read the Serrano books, you'll lack some background, but you should have no problem following the story. Once a Hero is utterly lacking in subtlety, but it's the most enjoyable novel Moon has written in years.
-- Christina Schulman.
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