The Serrano Legacy (published as Heris Serrano in the USA) collects Hunting Party (1993), Sporting Chance (1994) and Winning Colours (1995) by Elizabeth Moon, which first appeared in the UK as individual novels in 1999. The omnibus relates the civilian life of Heris Serrano, formerly a Captain in the Regular Space Service. Serrano has left the Service under a cloud, a disgrace to her family, who have been Fleet for generations. She finds a job as captain of a yacht decorated in lavender plush and owned by a rich old woman. Lady Cecelia is more interested in horses than maintenance schedules, and soon has Serrano improving her technique on a riding simulator, as they are off to spend the season fox hunting on the planet Sirialis, the seat of Lord Thornbuckle. With them are half a dozen "younglings"—late teens and early twenties. Cecelia has been imposed upon to take them with her because one of them, Cecelia's nephew Ronnie, has quarrelled with the heir to the throne of the Familias Regnant. This simple setup allows Moon to explore the growing friendship between a former champion horse rider in her eighties and a former rising star of the fleet in her forties. They are both contrasted with the immature but privileged youths, who appear to have had an Enid Blyton upbringing of boarding schools and pranks.
Once on Sirialis, the story is turned over to the joys of riding out to fox hounds. The delights and frustrations of a day on horseback read as convincingly in these pages as in T. H. White's England Have My Bones (1936).
That run, her first full run, remained a confusion in her mind when she tried to tell Cecelia about it. Field and wood and field succeeded each other too rapidly; she had to concentrate on steering Tiger around trees and readying herself for the fences, walls, ditches, banks that came at her every time she thought she'd caught her breath. (pp. 170-1)
Even so, given that the acknowledgement includes "Why not fox hunting and spaceships" (p.3), I was beginning to despair that we were destined to spend hundreds of pages in a pastorale when suddenly we are dumped into a plot. Four of Serrano's young passengers skip out of fox hunting but find themselves the prey of a more sinister hunt. The tension quickly racks up as Serrano discovers that this hunting party is led by Admiral Lepescu, who forced her out of the service. The youths, hunted across their own childhood playground, become sympathetic viewpoints—not least because, facing death, they start to grow out of spoilt juvenility. They survive, with the help of Serrano's former crew, whom Lepescu has also used as prey, but one of the other hunters is the very prince with whom Ronnie quarrelled. This is attributed to his foolishness, but also points at corruption deep in the heart of the Fleet and the government. Serrano's—and her crew's—service records are cleared, but they choose to stay with Lady Cecilia rather than return to a Service they no longer quite trust. Displayed so briefly, the plot appears heavy with coincidence, but deeper machinations in the set-up are yet to unfold. So, by the end of the first book, the characters and relationships are defined and the larger setting is wide open to explore.
Despite the impression Moon initially gives of an interplanetary society which has been settled for centuries, the Familias Regnant is changing. The second book develops the question of corruption at the heart of power, but to make this work, it needs a clear definition of the shape of government. In this it is less than successful. The hereditary king would appear to be the Chair of the Familias Grand Council, but when he abdicates, the Council votes to replace him with a Speaker. Moreover, membership of the council itself is hereditary, so this change is barely more significant than removing the word "king" from the power structures. These worthies also control industry throughout the Familias. As a result, Moon appears to have built this society as a benign dictatorship mediated by market forces. However, there are bad eggs within the system and external enemies, in the form of both pirate alliances and foreign governments. (Human all; there is no mention of aliens across these books, but there is no need for them when our fellow humans can be as vindictive as necessary). Underlying much of this is the emerging technology of serial rejuvenation, an opportunity to live forever which is only available to the extremely wealthy. The effects of this on the politics of the Familias, the attitude of their neighbours and the relationship between generations are all touched upon, but only lightly.
Whilst wealth is key to identity within the books, there is no prejudice on the basis of colour, sexuality or sex. The principle protagonists are all women, although none of them are wives or mothers. They are daughters—rebellious to a greater or lesser degree—or Aunts, quite clearly capitalised, who chose career over family, and are still often at odds with their siblings who chose more traditional paths. They are all tough, clever, and interesting and their characters drive the books in an organic way. I never felt that any of the protagonists acted merely to move the plot along. In the middle of the second book, for example, Serrano makes a huge error of judgement which leads to several deaths. It is obvious to the reader what she should be doing, but also clear how someone so shaped by a military career would assume a civilian to be in the wrong before questioning one of her own. The characters also grow noticeably and believably over the course of the book, and by the third book, Serrano takes on challenges which she would not have dared in the first. In fact, one of the last acts of these 1100 pages is for Serrano to reach a personal resolution over her initial, unhappy departure from the Fleet. The older characters also act as mentors for younger ones—from Cecelia's approach to Heris Serrano to Serrano's handling of the rich young women she encounters in Cecelia's circles.
The deft characterisation is vital given that these books don't attempt to handle issues in the depth I had hoped for from reading Moon's Nebula-winning Speed of Dark. This is much more of a page-turner. The writing is brisk and unfussy, with plenty of action and not a little peril. There are beautifully described space battles, less geometrically oriented than those in a book like Walter Jon Williams's The Praxis (2002), but similarly robust and rippling with technical jargon. The horsy sections have just as much jargon in them, but they are also loaded with the joy of physical activity and achievement. Combined with people we come to care about, these qualities make The Serrano Legacy superior entertainment.