Lee and Miller’s “Dragon Ship” — Good Storytelling, Odd Story

What, as a reviewer, can be said when you really like two authors but do not like one of their books?

Over the past several months, I’ve been in just this quandary with Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s DRAGON SHIP, the fourth book following the story of Theo Waitley (after FLEDGLING, SALTATION, and GHOST SHIP).  I loved the previous three books in this arc, just as I loved every single one of Lee and Miller’s other books in and out of the Liaden Universe — but I do not love this one.

Before I go on, I will admit right away that spoilers will be discussed.  If you do not want your reading spoiled, stop reading.

Now, let’s get started.

DRAGON SHIP takes up where GHOST SHIP left off.  No time has passed.  Theo Waitley is still the provisional captain of the unusual, sentient ship Bechimo, but is not a “full” captain as the ship hasn’t accepted Theo, nor has Theo accepted the ship.  Her male lover, Win Ton yo’Vala, is still on the ship in a sealed medical unit due to taking a grave illness that seems akin to radiation.  His prognosis remains uncertain.  And Theo’s female lover, a young woman Theo met at Anlingden Piloting Academy, is also resident aboard the ship.

Theo, in effect, has three lovers aboard the ship at once, and one is an AI.  But Theo doesn’t seem to see this as a consideration, perhaps because she’s young and rather driven.

At any rate, Clarence O’Berin, de facto First Officer and relief pilot, is still there, and continues to give Theo wise counsel whenever Theo asks for it.  But he gets very little airplay in this book, which I thought was a shame.

So instead of seeing a straight-up action-adventure — though we do get some of that — this particular novel is all about the love quadrangle between Theo, Win Ton, the woman from Anlingden, and Bechimo the ship/AI.  And as such, I found it . . . well, there’s no polite way to say it except “extremely lacking.”

Look.  Theo is drawn as a normal-looking woman.  She is obviously both highly intelligent and has more than her share of what most people would call “leadership.”  But nowhere in any of the previous books was a sign of Theo being irresistible to anyone of either sex, providing they’re of her age and experience.  (Bechimo is of course much older, but is incredibly naïve as he’s had little interaction with human beings or other AIs for centuries.  Not that there are many other AIs extant, but I’m getting to that.)  Yet here she is with all these lovers — one of which, Bechimo, she doesn’t even realize is interested in her as a romantic partner — and there’s nothing in her background to explain why this is.

Getting to Bechimo, there’s every reason to see why he’d want to pair off.  He’s an AI in a universe that doesn’t particularly cotton to such things and he’s not had a whole lot of acceptance in his rather lengthy life.  He wants to share his life and his ship with someone else, and as he’s male, he seems to prefer a female lover/companion to become his captain.

However, the reader doesn’t understand this is what is going on from the first, as the story is mostly told through Theo’s perspective.  (That is, when it’s not giving updates on other people in the far-flung Liaden Universe.  I enjoyed seeing the updates about Miri Robertson, her consort Val Con yos’Phelium, and many others, but they were more of an appetizer — not a full meal.)  And Theo really doesn’t seem to get what Bechimo’s after; she thinks of Bechimo as a machine, even after the only other AI she knows — Jeeves, a friend to Clan Korval for at least fifty years — befriends Bechimo.

There’s some good reasons for this, mind you.  Jeeves, despite his self-identification as male, seems sexless.  He’s an AI, yes, but he has no interest in the opposite sex at all, perhaps because there are no known female AIs, perhaps because he was constructed to be a war-bot.  (That is, a tactical general of sorts in the various high-tech wars of the future.)  And Jeeves has always come across as paternal, too — or maybe to a certain few, like Shan yos’Galan or Theo’s father Daav yos’Phelium, as a sort of brother.

At any rate, all of the adventures that Theo has here mostly go to show what we already knew from the previous three books — she’s intelligent.  She’s a really good pilot.  And she’s an excellent captain, providing she’s getting cooperation from her ship and crew.  So in that way, they are extraneous — nice to see, sure, and well told by Lee and Miller.  But the main plot remains that love quadrangle — and as it’s never fully realized by Theo, that’s not nearly enough.

Then, the main secondary plot is about Theo’s parents, Kamele Waitley and Daav yos’Phelium.  Kamele is worried about her daughter (and doesn’t even realize that Theo’s being courted by a sentient AI, either; Kamele must have a little ESP of her own, methinks), and intends to go to Surebleak to find her, as she knows that’s where the Korval Clan (what Theo is a part of through her father, Daav) has established residence.  I had no problem with this part of the secondary plot.

Daav was in mortal danger at the end of GHOST SHIP, and was  rescued by the enigmatic Uncle, who has what’s best described for non-scientists as a trumped-up cloning machine.  Which means Daav can be saved.

So far, so good.  I’m for Daav being saved, and believe it is plausible.

Then the plot thickens, as the Uncle apparently can move souls from one body “shell” to another, which is why he, himself, has lived for thousands of years.  But as Daav’s lifemate, the deceased Aelliana Caylon, was still around Daav as a ghost — and as the Uncle somehow knew this — the possibility stood at the end of DRAGON SHIP that both Daav and Aelliana would be brought back in new shells.

And I just didn’t buy it.

Even though Aelliana is my favorite character by a mile out of all of Lee and Miller’s wonderful characters, she’s still dead.  And a dead character — whether she’s around as a ghost or not — has lived her life.  So there’s a difference between bringing back Daav, who’s still clinging to life, and Aelliana, who’s long dead — a big difference.

So let me sum it up for you: The writing here is excellent, as always.  But two conscious author’s decisions — one to put Theo in this love quadrangle, and the other to somehow resurrect Aelliana Caylon — put me way off my feed.  (And don’t get me started on how Bechimo actually binds Theo to him as a lover, something that truly turned my stomach.  And hint, hint — it’s not because of the technology.)

Therefore, as much as I enjoy Lee and Miller’s work, I cannot recommend DRAGON SHIP even though I wish I could.  But if you must read it, be warned that this love quadrangle aspect exists, even if it is never fully realized by Theo.  And try to keep from throwing the book across the room once you realize what Bechimo does to make — almost force — Theo to love him, much less the whole thought of the long-dead Aelliana Caylon being brought back to life . . . whether she wants it or not.

Grade: C, mostly because the quality of the writing was, as always, excellent.

— reviewed by Barb

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  1. #1 by violetxy on May 31, 2014 - 4:29 pm

    I think I disagree about Aelliana being truly dead. We have seen her, briefly, inhabit the body of Daav fully as when she is Seen by korval. I also think less explicitly it’s hinted in one of the Retrospective interludes in Fledgling that she comes forward at other times. Regardless her consciousness is clearly still clinging to the living realm.

    As to Theo’s attractiveness. It has been a while since I read all of the books but I id just re-read Fledgling and well there are instances when Theo is portrayed as Attractive if not Pretty. Obviously there is the whole interaction with Win Ton which whilst not necessarily romantic ould be seen that way and certainly the conversation with Kamele about bowli ball has connotations of Kamele thinking it might be of a more … sexual nature.

    Leaving that aside, we have those horrible people on the night bus. They both belittle her and insult her by mentioning she may be some sort of prostitute. They also dismiss the idea. — of course men like that might just be prone to thinking that way anyway and often are.

    And then, there’s the incident of the boys asking her to dance on the ship and her saying it wasn’t fair. Up until then they had definitely been considering her as a potential sexual liasion and indeed still after if a lot less… mannerly.

    So — all in all I would disagree with Theo’s lack of attraction. Remember all the times Daav is said to be unhandsome but for all that ATTRACTIVE — I think this is a quality Theo has inherited.

    But saying all that very enjoyable review to read.

    • #2 by Barb Caffrey on May 31, 2014 - 7:52 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Violet.

      I agree that Theo has an appeal for men, perhaps a very strong one. But she herself does not seem aware of this.

      I also agree that Aelliana is not, traditionally speaking, deceased. Her body is gone. Her spirit is still there. And Daav would be dead if she wasn’t. So yes, that’s a gray area, too.

      Glad you enjoyed my review!

  2. #3 by Terryt on October 30, 2014 - 9:06 pm

    I agree with your downgrading this, but I would have given it a D. In fact, this book turned me off of the Liaden universe, and I will not buy another one until they finish the entire arc. When the “fifth of five” come out I will buy it to see what finally happened. I disagree that Theo is an excellent captain. Fabulous pilot, sure. But she lacks the maturity and empathy to lead well, and to me she has not evolved at all since pilot school. She remains completely self-centered and oblivious to the those around her. It was interesting when she was young, but several years later I would expect more.
    I also share your opinion about Aelliana, both that she is a great character and that I do not want to see her brought back from the dead.
    And this whole multi-novel arc, while the Department of the Interior storyline remains essentially unresolved? Meh.
    Lastly, I believe you are wrong about Kamele’s motivation. I refuse to reread the book, but my memory tells me her concern was for Jen Sar (Da’av), not Theo, and that her intent was to “free” him from the orders of his Delm.
    Great blog, love the reviews.

    • #4 by Barb Caffrey on October 31, 2014 - 2:03 am

      Thank you, Terryt. I appreciate your remarks.

      I do think Kamele was going there partly to help “Jen Sar” (Daav). But I think she also was worried about her daughter, and had very good reason to be worried.

      I’m sorry this novel turned you completely off to the Liaden Universe. I wasn’t happy with this one, as you know, but the last two were very good. And “Necessity’s Child” had the other character who’d been conscripted by the DoI and had also managed to get away from them (same as Val Con), which at least advanced that plotline a trifle.

      I don’t know what Lee and Miller will do next. But even though this novel decidedly wasn’t my cup of tea (for many of the reasons you’ve just shared here, granted), I’ll at least be willing to try the next novel in this arc in the hopes that there will be some sort of resolution _somehow_. (At least for Theo’s sometime lovers, because they deserve a happier ending than they’ve received thus far.)

  1. Just Reviewed Lee and Miller’s “Dragon Ship” at SBR | Barb Caffrey's Blog

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