The first thing you need to know about the books FLEDGLING and SALTATION is that they’re written by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, who are both spouses and co-writers, and that between them, Lee and Miller know how to write enjoyable and satisfying novels.
The second thing you need to know about these two particular books, FLEDGLING and SALTATION, are that they are set in Lee and Miller’s popular far-future Liaden Universe. This is a place Lee and Miller know very well as they’ve set at least a dozen short stories plus another dozen novels here, yet the richness and freshness of this setting never dulls.
And the third, and final, thing you need to know about these two books, FLEDGLING and SALTATION, are that they are both about Theo Waitley, and are sequential. Theo is fourteen when the first book, FLEDGLING, starts; she is the daughter of Kamele Waitley, a Terran professor at the University of Delgado (both the name of the university and the planet), and Jen Sar Kiladi, a Liaden expatriate and a professor of cultural genetics, also in residence upon Delgado. Delgado is known as a “safe world,” meaning that all behavior is tightly regulated and monitored, and that in addition to the typical coursework of “reading, writing and arithmetic,” Theo studies “Advertency” (how to better understand the world and your place in it by being observant, more or less), consensus-building, and Social Engineering (how to better get along with others).
Yet Theo is half-Liaden, and has the reflexes of a pilot. This is because her father, Jen Sar Kiladi, is better known as Daav yos’Phelium, the former Delm (or head of the clan) of Korval. Daav has this alternate identity because he’d wanted to study cultural genetics but didn’t want to be bothered by the status he held (at that point, he was the heir, rather than the Delm, but still of extremely high rank), nor did he want to cause problems for his homeworld of Liad, where far too many people outside his own clan seem to believe that humans and Liadens should not mix — thus the study of cultural genetics (trying to find a common root ancestor for humanity and the Liadens has taken place, yet the Liadens don’t want to believe it and some of the Terrans don’t, either) isn’t exactly something the Delm of Korval is supposed to put his influence behind. Korval is known for its pilots (which is why Daav, in any identity, is a superb pilot), and for its motto “I Dare,” and to a lesser extent for its mixed marriages between humans and Liadens, but aside from piloting, the Delm of Korval is supposed to be as neutral as possible in cultural matters, which is why Daav came up with this alternate identity in the first place.
As seen in the books SCOUT’S PROGRESS and MOUSE AND DRAGON, Daav’s life was rigidly circumscribed by tradition whenever he was resident upon Liad, and he hated it. His marriage to Aelliana Caylon, pilot and mathematician, greatly improved his life in all respects, but was unfortunately of short duration (and will be discussed in a forthcoming review). Because of what happened there, Daav felt forced to leave Liad behind and take up his alternate identity.
Theo knows nothing of this — absolutely, positively nothing — and doesn’t even know she’s half-Liaden. But what she does know is that she’s considered clumsy by her fellow students, isn’t that great at consensus building, finds Social Engineering rather dull, and while she can see the benefits of Advertency, well . . . she’s a misfit, in short. And Delgado doesn’t exactly make misfits welcome.
So when there’s a major problem relating to the University and someone has to go off-world to handle it, her mother Kamele takes up this task, then takes Theo along with her, hoping to broaden Theo’s education. On this trip, Theo meets Win Ton yo’Vala, a young Scout pilot (the Scouts are explorers, but also are one of the few branches of Liaden society where those who are curious about other races, planets, or cultures can go without being ostracized), and finds out that her reflexes are excellent. That she has a talent for piloting — and that she’s half-Liaden.
After her mother solves the problems and goes back home, Theo goes through her rite of passage, called the Gigneri. She’s told the story of her genes — not the actual conception, but that she truly is the child of “Jen Sar Kiladi” (as that’s the only name Kamele Waitley knows him under; Daav’s now been undercover for at least sixteen years), who has had status as a professor and her mother’s Onagrata (or sanctioned lover; Delgado is a matriarchal society) and has been in Theo’s life from the get-go. This is a very good way to end FLEDGLING; it’s positive, hopeful and uplifting, and while it’s obvious to all that Theo’s not going to be following in her mother’s footsteps as yet another Scholar of Delgado, even Kamele herself sees the benefits of Theo going off-world and getting her pilot’s training.
SALTATION takes up at Anlingden Piloting Academy, which is resident on the half-human, half-Liaden world of Eylot. Theo’s been sponsored to the Academy by Cho sig’Radia, one of the Liaden Scouts (and Win Ton yo’Vala’s Scout mentor), so she’s a scholarship student in piloting. She’s starting in the middle of the semester and is placed in accelerated coursework, but isn’t told this — all she knows is that for the first time in her life, school not only suits her, but is incredibly challenging, to boot.
Theo has adventures from the start in piloting, but what’s most impressive about this book are the cultural variations that Theo notes and files away. Though she still doesn’t know her father is actually the former Delm of Korval, Daav yos’Phelium, she now knows he’s a pilot of distinction and that he respects the Liaden Scouts. (Daav was once a Scout himself, though “Jen Sar” was not.) And she’s a credit to Daav’s teaching — she’s observant, highly intelligent, and an excellent pilot who learns quickly and enjoys her learning.
But there’s trouble brewing on Eylot: the planet is ripe for revolution, and is about to kick off all the Liadens — even part-Liadens who didn’t grow up knowing anything about Liad like Theo. So Theo’s next challenge is simply this: survival.
How Theo gets out of that mess is for you to read, but I highly encourage you to do so. Theo scans as a real person — yes, highly motivated, very intelligent, and extremely interesting, but the farthest thing from a saint because she has a hot temper (now that she can finally admit to it; on Delgado, she suppressed it), she’s not that great at dealing with people her own age, and has some serious weaknesses that arise out of her strengths — and her adventures, both in FLEDGLING and in SALTATION, are well worth the time invested in reading these books. (Then re-reading them. Often.)
The best news of all about Theo Waitley? Well, her journey isn’t over — Baen Books, Lee and Miller’s publisher, has a third book about Theo contracted called GHOST SHIP which is in progress at this time. And this book will integrate Theo’s journey with the “mainline” sequence (starting with Lee and Miller’s first published novel, AGENT OF CHANGE, and ending with I DARE), which promises to be even more of a great thing.
In conclusion — grab these novels, and then recommend them to everyone you know. (Yes, they are that good.) Then join me in avidly awaiting GHOST SHIP.
— Reviewed by Barb.