Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s “Trade Secret” — Slow Start, Absorbing Finish

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been reviewed here at Shiny Book Review multiple times. They always turn out thought-provoking, high-quality novels and most of the time, their novels end up on my “to be re-read soonest” shelf.

Their newest novel is TRADE SECRET, a direct sequel to their earlier novel BALANCE OF TRADE, both off the “main sequence” of the Liaden Universe and predating the action of AGENT OF CHANGE by a few centuries. Clan Korval is only mentioned by reputation in both of these novels; instead, the Liaden Clan at the heart of both BALANCE OF TRADE and TRADE SECRET is Clan Ixin, while the personage we’re following is a young human man named Jethri who’s been adopted into Clan Ixin and is learning the business of trade (as you probably guessed by the title).

Now, you might be asking yourself why I’m dancing around the issue of Jethri’s name. Simply put, the Terrans call him one thing — Jethri Gobelyn — while the Liadens call him another — Jethri ven’Deelin Clan Ixin. And because Jethri has two names, he often has to reconcile who he is with what society expects from him.

Or, in his case, what both societies (Terran and Liaden) expect from him.

One of the ways authors Lee and Miller do this is by contrasting the expectations the Liadens have with regards to sex compared to those Jethri grew up with (the Gobelyns, who are Loop Traders — that is, their trading ship has comparatively few destinations that repeat over and over compared to a bigger trading enterprise such as the one possessed by Jethri’s adoptive mother Norn ven’Deelin Clan Ixin). Jethri is a young adult, so the Gobelyns have taught him to be careful, to be smart, to not rush into anything and not to pair off until you’re much more sure of yourself . . . and sex, obviously, is a part of that pairing off.

This, of course, is much like most parents treat young adults now. It’s a mix of caution plus some education as to why you’re feeling more hormonal surges (and urges), and the way the society on-ship is constructed, young adults don’t get a lot of opportunities for experimentation save a few furtive kisses now and again (almost never on their own ships, as they aren’t big enough to prevent inbreeding) or with “bundling,” which is a lot like cuddling except in a small space.

But the Liadens see sex differently. They feel sex should be a sharing even between two people who don’t have love between them. (Granted, the Liadens do not feel you should go to bed with anyone at all. They are more rigid in many ways than humans in that regard.) They also think if you’re not trained to be a considerate, caring partner, that shows a lack of breeding . . . and because Jethri has only recently been adopted into Clan Ixin, all of his tutoring has been accelerated.

Including his romantic training.

The ways the Liadens are similar to the Terrans are in the realm of education and awareness — neither culture sees it as a good thing when young adults are unaware of what sex is all about, and both cultures feel you should not produce children if you cannot take care of them, most especially if you are of a High House (Liaden) or are a member of a trading ship (Terran/Rim Runners/Loop Traders).

So Jethri’s introduction to sex is much more complex than you might expect, and it is a plot point because Jethri stands between two worlds — Terran and Liaden. And because he’s the first person to do this, he’s a trailblazer . . . and he feels the weight of expectations on both sides keenly.

I enjoyed TRADE SECRET quite a bit once I got into it, but the first half was a bit slow for my taste. Jethri starts out learning from his adoptive mother Norn, but must be sent elsewhere on an important mission where his dual identities will be an asset. Getting there was torturous at times, especially when Jethri’s personal objectives were nearly met in one chapter before the next cut away to what’s going on with the Gobelyns these days. And figuring out exactly why the Gobelyns mattered so much took some doing.

(Hint, hint: It’s not necessarily for the obvious reason.)

The action mostly revolves around something Jethri’s father Arin left him. No one knows where it is, but Jethri has hints. So he has to go in search of that in addition to going on the important mission (the two are intertwined in a way I can’t reveal without spoilers, I’m afraid) and it’s a decent way to structure TRADE SECRET that worked better the longer I thought about it.

Ultimately, though, the action is a MacGuffin. It’s not what’s important. What is important is Jethri’s coming of age story and how he balances his nascent adult self against what the Terrans expect on the one hand, and what the Liadens expect on the other.

Before I forget, there’s also a subplot about a particularly nasty cuss who doesn’t like Jethri and does everything he can to get in Jethri’s way. This rather immature Liaden “halfling” (teenager, roughly) has been spoiled rotten and yet has one, loyal person around him: his butler, who sees some potential in the nasty cuss and is trying to bring it out.

This particular subplot at first left me scratching my head, but ultimately it, too, came into focus. (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Despite the slow start due to all of the above, TRADE SECRET was quite, quite good.

In fact, once everything finally fell into place (a few, short pages before the end), I understood why authors Lee and Miller chose this particular way to tell this story.

You see, all the disparate elements worked to create a mosaic. Mosaics can’t usually be understood until you step away and ponder them for a while. And while creating a mosaic is not the usual way to structure a novel, this approach benefited¬†TRADE SECRET immensely.

Bottom line? TRADE SECRET is an excellent coming-of-age story, the cross-cultural clashes are stellar, and all of the seemingly unrelated stuff actually is related once you step away from it and ponder the novel as a whole.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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