Posts Tagged Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

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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