Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s newest omnibus set in their Liaden Universe is THE CRYSTAL VARIATION, which contains three separate novels: CRYSTAL SOLDIER, CRYSTAL DRAGON, and BALANCE OF TRADE. These are elegant, suspenseful, and intriguing novels, each in a slightly different way.
CRYSTAL SOLDIER is the earliest story in the entire Liaden Universe epic; it is about Clan Korval’s founders M. Jela Granthor’s Guard and Clanmother Cantra yos’Phelium. It starts out with Jela marooned on a planet that’s all but dead; it has one, lone living tree remaining that Jela finds while looking for water, food, or shelter. Jela is a soldier and pilot, and was created genetically to be exactly what he is; he had no mother and no father, growing up in a créche. So the fact that his reflexes are keen and his brains are excellent should be no surprise; what is surprising is his compassion, as he ends up saving the sole, living tree (a sapling), taking it with him once he’s rescued.
This is extremely significant even though it may not seem to be at the time, because the tree becomes Jelaza Kazone — otherwise known as “Jela’s Fulfillment” — and is part of the “Tree and Dragon” clan symbol that Korval becomes known for throughout the known galaxy in later books. This tree is a natural biochemist, has limited telepathic abilities, and is sentient, which is why this unnamed tree is every bit as much a founder of Korval as is Jela or Cantra.
Cantra comes into the picture later on; she’s a pilot of note and a “Gray Trader.” This means that Cantra goes to worlds that aren’t particularly hospitable in order to make money, and deals with many unscrupulous sorts. The galaxy is a dangerous place that’s made even more so due to the Sheriekas, an almost unimaginably alien enemy that would rather turn humans and human-settled planets into crystal than coexist peacefully; this fact is one of the reasons Cantra can make a living, as there are some routes that are considered so dangerous that the more usual, legitimate class of free trader won’t even bother with them, thus leaving the field to people like her.
Cantra and Jela meet up on an out of the way planet; Jela’s expecting to meet someone else, but talks with Cantra because she is a fellow pilot and pilots everywhere feel a kinship to each other. He is also intrigued by Cantra as she’s not exactly what she seems; Cantra is, in fact, also an artificially-created human being, an aelantaza — trained to become a scholar/assassin — and thus, she and Jela have more in common than either of them thought. And while Jela is a pilot of distinction, at the time he meets Cantra, he doesn’t exactly have a ship; when he signs on to work with her (a more or less accidental thing), they realize that they work well together and that their disparate abilities are complementary.
Over time and adventures, Cantra and Jela form a close, working partnership. But both want more; they just aren’t exactly sure how to ask for it, considering neither of them wants to get in each other’s way. So there’s a hint of romance going on, too, which along with the general respect for each other’s intelligence and ability works rather well; seeing Clan Korval founders Cantra and Jela as real, live, flesh and blood people with wants and needs of their own is a revelation.
The next part of CRYSTAL SOLDIER you need to be aware of is the Uncle; he is a dangerous man who helps to liberate “Batchers” — that is, artificially grown and cloned humans who are grown in a Batch who do not have legal rights or standing, yet are actual human beings. The Uncle, for all his faults — and as he’s a Dark Trader who loves “older” technology that may or may not be harmful and will do just about anything to get his hands on the stuff, these faults are legendary — has his heart in the right place with regards to this issue.
The Uncle, Cantra, and Jela all intersect because of one woman, Dulsey, who is a “Batcher.” Cantra knows where the Uncle is likely to be, you see — and like the Uncle, Cantra really despises the slavery that Batchers endure as a matter of course, while Jela doesn’t exactly like it, either; this is why they take Dulsey to see the Uncle in hopes that the Uncle will help Dulsey evade those who’d willingly enslave her. (That Jela was created to be what he is, and is a member of the military and has a limited life span yet is not a slave — more like a servant — is an irony that both Jela and Cantra realize; Cantra was created also, yet she escaped her fate and is as human and legal as most.) So once again, their compassion is on display, here, even if it’s understated (especially on the part of Cantra).
CRYSTAL DRAGON starts out with the introduction of Rool Tiazan and his Lady; these are highly telepathic people who were created by the Iloheen (aka the Sheriekas) to serve the Iloheen. Their “service” amounts to wiping out whole star systems and turning many of them to crystal in the process; the thing is, some of these servants have had enough, including Tiazan and his Lady (who hasn’t accepted a name because she doesn’t want to be bound by anything). There are references, outright ones, to domination and submission here, with the women being the dominants and the men, all named, being the submissives — that Tiazan refuses to submit and insists on equality is notable.
After this lengthy, but necessary, introduction (you see, without these folks, it’s unlikely the Liadens would have anywhere near as many telepaths, Healers, or dramliz — wizards, more or less — as they do in later books), we get back to Jela and Cantra. Jela’s last military orders are to keep some people, somewhere, alive, and Cantra is in agreement with this purpose but isn’t exactly sure how she can help. They have more adventures; the Uncle shows up a little bit, too, just to keep his hand in. And the two of them mate, more than once; despite the fact that Jela’s lifespan is about to end (45 being the upper limit for an M series soldier) and that he was bred to be sterile, the tree aids the pair of them by encouraging them to have a child. (Note that Cantra and Jela don’t realize this is what’s going on at first. Cantra was protected against pregnancy and Jela is supposed to be sterile.) Rool Tiazan’s Lady helps Cantra due to her healing knowledge; without the Lady’s help, Cantra never would’ve had a child, thus wouldn’t have been able to help found Clan Korval.
The book ends with the successful evasion of the Sheriekas, the founding of Liad with the refugees Jela helped to protect, and a great deal of melancholy (that I refuse to spoil).
BALANCE OF TRADE takes up approximately one thousand years later; Liad is now a heavily settled, civilized world, yet they have very little truck with “normal” humans (called Terrans, though these may not be from our Earth or even our galaxy). One Master Trader, Norn ven’Deelin, decides to change this after a young Terran boy, Jethri Gobelyn, unwittingly aids her in evading identity theft. (Or the high-tech equivalent.) Jethri is a smart lad but has never really felt comfortable due to the fact his mother, Iza, doesn’t care about him at all. So when ven’Deelin decides to offer Jethri a post as an Apprentice Trader on a Liaden ship under her tutelage, Iza is more than willing to see Jethri’s back even though as far as anyone knows, Jethri is the first human being to be offered such a post and will have many challenges ahead.
Over time, Jethri becomes a better Trader, learns the Liaden languages (High and Low), learns the art of bowing (something that goes along with the language study) and of dance . . . then, as he’s starting to feel welcome on his new ship, he gets put down on a planet (“dirtside,” as he’d style it). Jethri isn’t used to this as he grew up on a ship; even dealing with comparatively heavy gravity all the time (as he has on the Liaden ship; his own had much ligher grav) was difficult enough. Now, he’s going to have to deal with the weather, with the sight of mountains, with many stairs and much variation in tone, temperament, and manners on a Liaden homeworld (not Liad itself, mind you, but in the Liaden sphere of influence and dominated by Liadens). How will he go on?
And how does the Uncle — yes, that Uncle — figure into all this?
This is a very nice change-of-pace for Lee and Miller, as BALANCE OF TRADE is an excellent young adult coming of age novel. There’s no sex, little profanity, a great deal of youthful idealism and charm, a nifty clash of cultures . . . in short, this is a fun novel to end with that complements the two others nicely.
CRYSTAL SOLDIER: A+ (for action-adventure with a hint of romance).
CRYSTAL DRAGON: A (for all of the above, plus some really strange, alien worldviews, not all of it from the Sheriekas).
BALANCE OF TRADE: A- (would’ve liked a bit more resolution to the ending or a sequel; this novel doesn’t precisely end on a cliffhanger, but there’s obvious room for more development that so far hasn’t been explored).
Overall grade: A.
So what are you waiting for? Go grab this omnibus — an excellent value — right now, then start plaguing the authors for a sequel to BALANCE OF TRADE.
— reviewed by Barb