Posts Tagged Liaden Universe

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s “Necessity’s Child” is a Fine, Fast Read

Necessity's Child coverSharon Lee and Steve Miller’s NECESSITY’S CHILD is a novel about Syl Vor yos’Galan Clan Korval, a child of about eight who’s had his life completely rearranged due to circumstances beyond his control. His mother, along with her entire clan (Korval), has relocated to the planet Surebleak, a cold and dismal frontier world. Because Syl Vor was recently in danger along with every member of his clan (explicated in PLAN B and I DARE, currently collected in the omnibus KORVAL’S GAME), he’s suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress and is not particularly childlike due to having to assume adult responsibilities at way too young an age.

As NECESSITY’S CHILD is the sixteenth novel in Lee and Miller’s Liaden Universe series, it serves two purposes: For long-time readers, it fills in the gaps regarding what happened to the children of Korval once Plan B was called because of the nasty things the Department of the Interior was trying to do to Korval in order to wipe out the whole Clan. (Roughly, Plan B meant that adults of Korval scattered, while the children were taken to a place of safety and protected.) And for new readers, it’s a wonderful story about the young Syl Vor, who feels he has much to live up to, being a child of Korval, but has all the problems you might expect a young person to have who’s been uprooted from the only planet he’s ever known — Liad — and told that he must go elsewhere along with the others previously discussed.

Syl Vor quickly meets up with Kezzi and her little dog, Udari, while at a new school. Kezzi is about his age, is quick-witted and ever-so-slightly slightly psychic (with the potential to be more in the future), and has very quick reflexes. But because Kezzi comes from the secretive kompani (think “Gypsies” and you’re not far wrong), she doesn’t give either her correct name or her dog’s correct name right away. Syl Vor is drawn to her and because of a series of youthful adventures (some might call them “mishaps”), he and Kezzi end up having to account for themselves both to his mother, the formidable Nova yos’Galan Clan Korval, and to the luthia — the woman Kezzi accounts for as her grandmother, who also is the grandmother to all the kompani.

While these two are having their adventures, we meet a confused young man named Rys. He is obviously Liaden, doesn’t know what he’s doing on Surebleak, and is missing a leg. This is significant because Liadens either get medical treatment right away for their injuries (even small scars aren’t usual, or permitted), or they are often shunned by their Clan of origin.

As time goes on, we find out that Rys is a former agent of the Department of the Interior. Like Val Con yos’Phelium, Delm of Korval (and hero of many of the Liaden Universe books), he has managed to break training and become himself again. But the price has been steep, as his mind is broken and his soul does not seem to be able to be mended as he cannot fully remember exactly what has happened to bring him to this place.

Complicating the mix is a full agent of the Department of the Interior, who wants Rys to cause trouble for Korval, as Korval has managed thus far to elude the Department at every turn. Rys isn’t well enough to fight the Department on his own, or at least he thinks he isn’t . . . but perhaps he has an ally in an unexpected place?

As usual with every book Lee and Miller write, NECESSITY’S CHILD is well thought out, interesting, and I cared about the characters from beginning to end. Syl Vor in particular is an appealing youngster precisely because he’s had to assume responsibilities that are far too old for him due to the recent unpleasantness with the Department of the Interior, and how he regains a little of his boyhood is well worth reading all on its own.

But then, there’s Kezzi, and the luthia, and Rys . . . lots of interesting subplots, lots of detail, and an intriguing mix that made me wonder just how strong a man Syl Vor will be once he reaches his maturity, which is exactly what you want in a coming of age tale.

The only possible drawback I see is this: If you haven’t read the previous Liaden Universe books, starting with this one may be difficult. Syl Vor’s story should be eminently comprehensible, yes — but why the Department of the Interior is so nasty may not be, as we only see one individual from the Department who’s actively trying to harm people rather than a whole bunch of them (as in other books).

Further, if you haven’t read the previous books, you may not understand how the formidable Clan Korval ended up on Surebleak at all, so you might not understand just how alienated Syl Vor is at the beginning of NECESSITY’S CHILD — though he’s trying hard not to show it, and obviously hasn’t admitted it to himself as that’s just not done in polite society.

As I’ve read every single last book in the Liaden Universe, I don’t have the same perspective as a new reader . So all I can say is that if you haven’t read any of the other books, I think it’s likely you’ll figure out what’s going on, at least from Syl Vor and Kezzi’s perspective if not necessarily from Rys’ point of view, and that you should still enjoy NECESSITY’S CHILD.

But if you have read all of the previous books, NECESSITY’S CHILD is a delight. All of the characters here are interesting, Syl Vor’s situation is completely understandable, and his cross-cultural friendship with Kezzi is heartwarming without being cloying — which is very tough to pull off.

Bottom line? NECESSITY’S CHILD is a fun, fast read that will stick with you long after you’ve finished turning the pages, and is a welcome addition to the overall Liaden canon.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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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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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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“The Crystal Variation” Omnibus is Elegant, Suspenseful, and Intriguing

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

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