As it’s the beginning of the New Year, it’s time for my inaugural review. I’ve chosen to review two books: THE DRAGON VARIATION and MOUSE AND DRAGON. Both are by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, the celebrated husband and wife writer team, and are outstanding.
Because THE DRAGON VARIATION is an omnibus, and because MOUSE AND DRAGON is a sequel to only one of the books in that omnibus, I’m going to review the three books comprising THE DRAGON VARIATION (which are, in order, LOCAL CUSTOM, SCOUT’S PROGRESS, and CONFLICT OF HONORS) out of order so as to give my reviews for SCOUT’S PROGRESS and MOUSE AND DRAGON sequentially.
THE DRAGON VARIATION omnibus starts off with LOCAL CUSTOM, one of the best books of mores and manners I’ve ever seen in the SF genre. It is the story of Anne Davis, a Terran professor of comparative linguistics, and Er Thom yos’Galan, a Liaden Master Trader. They had a romantic interlude years before this story started which resulted in a child, Shan yos’Galan, who lives with his mother. In fact, Anne Davis didn’t tell Er Thom anything, because in her culture, it isn’t necessary to do so in this far future time.
However, Er Thom’s culture on Liad has very strict rules about this sort of thing, and once he realizes Shan’s existence, he moves to have him recognized by his clan of Korval. Er Thom is one of two genetic “lines” that are allies within Korval, yos’Galan and yos’Phelium; that the Liadens feel it necessary to ally with Clans and kin records and extensive genetic genealogies is part of the cultural confusion surrounding this couple.
Because both Anne and Er Thom feel something deep and profound, their romance, once rekindled, is powerful and all-encompassing. This is strongly alien to Er Thom in particular (as on his birth-world of Liad, they go in for short-term contract marriages rather than life matings because of the cultural need to keep their genetic lines mixing), but is also unusually expressive to Anne Davis as well. This is an apparent “star-crossed romance” in the best of senses, and the typical romantic conventions are followed, yet in a way that seems almost anthropological — the study of other cultures, other customs — than would be seen in most romances of any sort, even SF ones.
How Anne Davis and Er Thom circumvent their differences and forge a life together is for you to read, but I would highly encourage you to do so. This is a couple worth cheering for, and Shan yos’Galan’s observations, whenever they occur, are priceless.
Next would normally be SCOUT’S PROGRESS, as it is second in the omnibus, but I will for the moment skip it to go on to CONFLICT OF HONORS, which is about Shan yos’Galan as an adult and his first encounter with the extraordinary Priscilla Delacroix y Mendoza, a Sintian Witch who’s been outcast from her planet. Priscilla’s story is the one we mostly follow in CONFLICT OF HONORS, yet Shan, once again, steals the show whenever he shows up. Shan is a Healer — he has psychic gifts, and is an empath — and Priscilla’s psychic gifts match up well with Shan’s, though are stronger than Shan’s, so when Shan’s empathy tells him Priscilla has a very important story to tell, we listen. And read. And re-read.
The most important questions being answered here are: what is the duty of an employer (as Shan’s now a Master Trader, and runs his own ship)? What can you do when life has thrown you a major curveball, and you’ve been put into a bad situation through no fault of yours? And, finally, is it possible to reach for love when you haven’t quite claimed your own personal power? (Not just in a psychic sense — in every sense.)
This is a fine book, well worth reading and re-reading again and again, because Priscilla is a heroine worth cheering for, and Shan is one of the most lovable rogues in romantic fiction.
Finally, we come to SCOUT’S PROGRESS, the middle book of THE DRAGON VARIATION omnibus. This story is about my favorite character in all of Lee and Miller’s output — Aelliana Caylon, an abused woman who’s treated horribly by her own family with the exception of her one, younger sister. She is a mathematician and a scholar, and is extremely intelligent, yet because of the way Liadens view marriage, she’d been married off quite young (perhaps as young as sixteen) in a short-term, contract marriage to a highly abusive man who treated her very badly because of her controlling, manipulative and scurrilous brother, Ran Eld Caylon Clan Mizel. Ran Eld is the second-most important person in Clan Mizel, being Nadelm — trained to run the entire Clan — and has abused his power over and over again because he’s the type of person for whom power is not only addictive, it is explosive.
At the start of SCOUT’S PROGRESS, we see that Aelliana is revered by Pilots — because she’s updated the ven’Tura Piloting tables as she found errors in them. These tables are what Pilots use to go from port to port, and mathematical errors obviously will lead to more deaths than not. (Math is vitally important in the space-trade.) She also is highly appreciated by her students, by at least some of her colleagues, and by her younger sister, Sinit. But she has no awareness of this due to how long she’s been downtrodden by her vicious elder brother Ran Eld. Aelliana is still in her mid-twenties, mind you, but has the mindset of someone much older due to the abuse.
Then, Aelliana wins a small ship in a game of chance, and needs to learn how to fly it in a hurry. This causes her to meet Daav, a man about ten years her senior, who is a Master Pilot needing distraction. Daav teaches Aelliana how to care for her craft, then how to fly it, and introduces her to many of his Pilot friends, some of whom are Liaden Scouts (thus far more broad-minded than most Liadens as they travel to many worlds and know the value of “local custom” more than most Liadens). Daav takes Aelliana under his wing, first as a colleague, then as a friend.
(Note: if you do not want your reading spoiled, you may want to look away at this point, and re-start two paragraphs down.)
As Aelliana realizes she has more to offer than she’d ever thought possible, her vicious brother does his best to bring her down. This precipitating moment causes Daav to realize he’s not been totally honest with himself; he is in love with Aelliana, and regardless of his high rank as Delm of Korval (something he’s kept from Aelliana because he didn’t want to scare her off as Korval, arguably, holds the highest rank of any Clan on Liad) needs to be with her, or else.
In MOUSE AND DRAGON, Aelliana is recovering from the hurts taken at the hands of her awful brother, Ran Eld, in Healer’s Hall. Daav meets up with her, admits he’s the Delm of Korval, and tries to sort out what they can possibly do now. So you’d think everything is great, right?
Daav yos’Phelium has duties, obligations, and had been about to enter into a contract marriage, but that’s not the worst of it — no, Daav can get out of all that, and does, though at a significant financial cost.
The real problem, instead, is with Clan Mizel. They have cast Ran Eld out; he is now considered dead to the Clan. And Aelliana’s worth as a Scholar, and as a Pilot and ship owner, is now valued much higher than before. Plus, Aelliana’s mother, the Delm of Clan Mizel, is recalcitrant regarding her daughter, and seems to have a form of selective memory, to boot.
Aelliana is having none of this, and removes to Daav’s home, a considerable distance away from the abode of Clan Mizel. They start a relationship, but cannot marry in the life-mating ceremony (where they will stay together for always, but one must leave the Clan in which he or she was born; obviously, this is going to be Aelliana’s duty as Daav couldn’t do so as Delm of Clan Korval) because Aelliana’s mother throws up roadblock after roadblock.
Complicating matters, Aelliana’s sister, Sinit, is not getting the proper education — and Aelliana worries about this. Sinit doesn’t deserve the fall-out from Ran Eld’s getting cast out and their mother’s extreme depression over it all. But Clan Mizel’s finances are awful; this is one of the reasons why Aelliana’s mother does not want Aelliana to leave the Clan after all.
How Aelliana gets out of this mess, how she and Daav form a life together, and how Aelliana’s sister Sinit is provided for, is for you to read. But once again, I would highly encourage you to do so. This is a poignant, deeply romantic story of personal growth, self-sacrifice, and almost insurmountable change, and is possibly the best writing of Lee and Miller’s career. It is emotional, yet somehow not too personal, and shows how two highly competent, highly intelligent people can make a life for each other despite all obstacles, and all odds.
Finally — and once again, this is a spoiler — it shows an unusual SFnal way to deal with the pain of being widowed at a too-early age. Daav’s agony is palpable, true-to-life, and highly realistic; I do not know how these authors, who have not been widowed to the best of my knowledge, got these emotions right, but they did so. (That Aelliana’s influence is still felt from time to time, and that Daav, despite this, cannot be the same person he was when his amazing wife was alive in all senses, is also realistic.)
You see, no matter how strong your bond is with your spouse, and no matter how much you feel his or her presence, you are still, physically, alone. You can’t be the same as before; nothing is ever the same. But what you can do — and what you must do — is take the lessons, and the memories, and the love you shared and use them to improve your life with whatever time you have left.
Daav’s solution, and Aelliana’s solution, is a unique and extremely unusual one, yet it rings true to this widow. Because, you see, Lee and Miller figured this out — our spouses do live on. In us.
*** end spoilers ***
As for grades, here we go:
LOCAL CUSTOM — A first-rate novel in every respect. I loved it. Grade: A.
CONFLICT OF HONORS — A coming of age tale, an understated romance, and some really good Trade going on. I highly enjoyed it. Grade: A.
SCOUT’S PROGRESS — An outstanding piece of work that for many authors would be the pinnacle of their achievement. I thoroughly appreciated it, admired it, and wish I could write like this pair. Grade: A+.
MOUSE AND DRAGON — An even more outstanding piece of work about love, about self-sacrifice, about change, about loss, and about the permanence of love regardless of the form. I am amazed by this book. Grade: A+++++++++
In conclusion: Grab these novels! Then go read everything else they’ve put out, too.
Reviewed by Barb.