So recently, meaning all of September and October while revising first The Mountain of Kept Memory and then The White Road of the Moon, I’ve been re-reading all of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books and catching up on the half-dozen or so that have been published most recently.
The Liaden books turned out to be appropriate and useful for re-reading purposes because they’re pretty easy to pick up and put down . . . it’s the putting down which is difficult and essential, of course. I’ve read my favorites many times, so they’re easy to put down; and the more recent ones aren’t as catchy for me, so they’re also put-down-able.
But, really, I had no idea how many Liaden stories are out now, or how many had come out while I was paying attention to other things. There are eighteen on the shelves, it turns out. Eighteen. Not counting three volumes of short stories. Wow. And one available for preorder already, though it’s not going to come out till next July.
It seems to me Lee & Miller are reaching a climactic point at which the Department of the Interior will finally be defeated once and for all, probably after being shown to be corrupted by Old Tech and really in the service of the Sherikas. That last bit is just a guess, but it seems likely. I’m wondering if Lee and Miller plan to go to exactly 20 books and then stop, but on the other hand they’re kind of in the habit of writing Liaden books now. It’s a bit hard to imagine them changing direction. Maybe they’ll just go on and on, filling in gaps and bringing in a new big bad guy after defeating the Department of the Interior.
Anyway, these books are challenging to sort out because they were written out of chronological order and lots of them overlap. I kept starting to read a new one (new to me) and thinking, Wait, what? And figuring out there was another one before that I also hadn’t read.
So, if you, too, have fallen behind in this series and are curious about how the books line up according to interior chronology, here you go. With additional comments reflecting my personal taste, the Liaden books, in order, are –
Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon. Protagonists: Cantra and Jela.
These two books, a complete duology, are set way, way in the past, before the modern universe is split off from the older universe, where the evil Sherikas are busy destroying all living things. At this time, Korval’s Tree is a mere sapling, perhaps the last of its kind. We see how Jela rescued the Tree and learn a bit about its background, not to mention a bit about the background of many, many other components of the Liaden world.
Among other things, we learn about the origins of the dramliza. As it happens, I hate the dramliza. I have always hated the dramliza. I don’t like Anthora, who is a walking deus ex machina device; and I seriously dislike Ren Zel, though he’s nice enough for an ultimately powerful wizard; and most of all I hate Shan pulling magical rabbits out of a hat whenever he most needs to . . . but there, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Despite having more than one quibble with this far-past duology, and despite the really annoying dramliza, overall I liked both books, the first more than the second.
Balance of Trade, Trade Secret Protagonist: Jethri
These two are set in the past and concern early efforts to get Liadens and humans to accept each other. Jethri is a young human adopted, through a series of happenstances, into an important Liaden clan. I rather liked the first book in the duology, but I must admit I didn’t feel like a lot happened in the second book. I found it a bit boring and can’t see that either book contains much that’s important to our understanding of what’s going on later in the chronological series. True, we have a brief encounter with The Uncle, and we get an early look at what is probably the Department of the Interior, though not by name. But none of that seems to add much to our general understanding of the world or the later characters.
It seems possible that Lee and Miller plan to write a third book in this sub-series and do something more important with that one. In that case, I’d say that Trade Secret is suffering from second book syndrome, which is a syndrome that in general I don’t really think I see all that often, no matter how axiomatic it is that the second book of a series is generally weak.
Local Custom, Scout’s Progress. Protagonists: Er Thom and Ann; Daav and Ailianna.
These, now. These books, concerned with the elder generation to what we might call the main set of protagonists . . . these are definitely cozy space opera, as discussed in a post here a little while ago. Or you could say these are SF romances. They are warm and fuzzy, even if Ann does act like a bit of an idiot for most of her book. Of course we know Ailianna is going to die tragically, but that’s still in the future. These are a couple of my favorite books in the series, especially the second.
This is also one of the earliest looks we get at how strikingly vulnerable Liadens are when they have horrible leadership within their clans. The Liaden clans are actually a terrible way to organize a society. Terrible. This only gets more evident as we go on with the series, especially if you read the short stories. Korval is rather an exception, but no, really, the clan structure, ugh. It is a system that is just overwhelmingly subject to serious abuse. I can’t see how it could possibly have been maintained as long as it apparently has.
Mouse and Dragon. Protagonists: Daav, Ailianna
This is a direct, immediate continuation of Scout’s Progress, but it feels quite different, largely because we can see the tragic ending coming. Also, the last part of the story feels rushed, with many little vignettes that jump the story ahead compared to the smoother narrative in the earlier part of the book. This is also one of the stories where we see Korval struggling to get simple things to work out, as happens surprisingly often if you read the whole series from front to back like I just did. Everyone always talks about how terrible an enemy Korval is, yet Daav has such trouble with Ailianna’s mother. It seems kind of strange.
I can’t imagine re-reading this particular installment very often. It’s very skippable, nothing important happens that we don’t already know all about from references in other books, and that tragic ending certainly doesn’t invite re-reading.
Conflict of Honors. Protagonist: Priscilla, Shan.
This was the first one written. Priscilla is a fine character and Shan, as the most important secondary protagonist, is utterly charming. This one is also basically a “cozy SF” type of story.
Of course you know Shan is the son of Er Thom and Ann, so in this book we finally are involved with the main set of protagonists, the current young-adult generation. I’ll just lay it out for you in case you’re not familiar with the series: the generation currently holding primary authority in the clan consists of Shan and his sisters Nova and Anthora; Daav’s son Val Con; and their cousin Pat Rin. Of the elders, by this time Er Thom and Ann are both dead; Ailianna is, um, partly dead; Daav is missing, and Kareen, Daav’s sister, is annoying but seldom much in evidence.
Later Priscilla becomes an uber-dramliza, and Shan also get sucked into the dramliza thing in the most eye-rollingly annoying deus ex manner possible. But this book! Tremendous charm, a total delight from start to finish. Imo this is still a really good choice if you want to try the series.
Agent of Change, Carpe Diem. Protagonists: Val Con, Miri
The other earliest-written books, also wonderful. I love Val Con and the Loop, I love Miri. I love the clutch turtles here. Fun and fast-paced, with great dialogue, many clever details, and, of course, the slowly developing romance. I wouldn’t call these cozy SF or SF romance, though of course there is a romance subplot. These are classic adventure SF – space opera, in other words.
Plan B, I Dare. Protagonists: Val Con, Miri, Nelirekk, Shan, Priscilla, Ren Zel, Anthora, Pat Rin, Natesa, Liz, Nova, and no doubt others I forget. Honestly, it gets kind of ridiculous.
Although I’ve seen other comments about how one reader or another appreciated seeing ALL the protagonists get pov time in these books, I think they are terribly, terribly cluttered. Also, I think we have way too much magic in these books. Miri gets magically perfect at speaking high Liaden and understanding the Code; Shan gets dramlizafied, Ren Zel becomes the ultimate high wizard, etc. I’m not keen on any of that.
What I like, and why I keep going back to re-read bits of these two books: I like Nelirekk. I would have liked Plan B better if it had mostly been his story. And I really like Pat Rin a lot and would have preferred I Dare to belong solely, or almost solely, to him. Incidentally, I would love to see a Liaden book where a really cool protagonist is NOT a pilot. The very strong implication through this whole series that only pilots are worth spit started to grate on me during this series re-read.
Fledgeling, Saltation. Protagonist: mostly Theo.
Frankly rather boring, as Theo is my least favorite protagonist and following her as she grows up would not have been my first choice. I like her better as she moves on with her life, so I prefer the latter book to the former. But she’s annoyingly Mary Sue-ish, with both striking competence (as a pilot, naturally) and striking good luck, and it starts to seem a little much of a muchness.
Also, Theo is Daav’s daughter by Kimele, though she doesn’t know anything about Korval in these books.
Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship. Protagonists: Theo, Daav, Clarence, many others in glancing bits here and there.
For once I prefer the scattered pov because Theo works better (for me) when her viewpoint is broken up with other characters. The AI ship Bechimo is okay. Actually I like Bechimo quite a bit. I also like Clarence, though I have a hard, hard time believing he would defer to Theo. I mean, really? She’s supposed to have these natural leadership skills, but frankly I don’t really see it. And we *know* Clarence is a very experienced leader under tough circumstances, so . . . yeah, no, I don’t really believe it.
What I do appreciate is seeing Korval settle on Surebleak. As you may recall, they were expelled from Liad at the end of I Dare. I found the explanation for why Korval was stuck on Liad whn evidently they hated it rather weak, but okay, whatever. I enjoyed seeing them make a place for themselves on Surebleak. If I lived on Surebleak, btw, I’d consider changing its name to reflect its more hopeful future.
Necessity’s Child. Protagonists: Syl Vor, Kezzi, Rhys.
I liked this one a lot. Syl Vor works a great deal better for me than Theo, maybe because he’s not (yet) a hotshot pilot and maybe because he’s so earnest and thoughtful. I like Kezzi, too, even though she belongs to a special magically-talented group of space gypsies, whom I liked almost despite myself. Space gypsies, really? Not that they were called that, but very definitely that’s what they are. With magic dreams and magic technology and an even more magic disinclination to reproduce. I should have hated them, but no, they were fine.
I like Kezzi’s little dog. Maybe that was part of why I liked this book. I visualized him as a Papillon, like my first dog. He is totally charming. Korval is so cat-heavy, I really appreciated this dog. Also, I liked Rhys, even though he is so helpless at first and then has that special magic hand and so on. Even so. I like the direction Lee & Miller obviously plan to take with Rhys.
Dragon in Exile. Protagonists: practically everybody, including Theo’s mother Kimele and Pat Rin’s father Lukin and really, everyone.
Quite fun, despite the extreme clutter. We are obviously moving into a real showdown with the Department of the Interior.
Alliance of Equals Coming soon
So, ranking the titles:
1. I would definitely press these on friends and family and anybody who held still long enough: Conflict of Honors, Agent of Change, Carpe Diem
2. I would suggest these to people who read romance and aren’t sure they would like SF: Local Custom, Scout’s Progress. Though I like them, these two honestly aren’t necessary to the reader’s understanding of later events.
3. I would recommend these to people who wanted to go on with the series but aren’t keen on reading all 18 books: Saltation, Plan B, I Dare, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship, Necessity’s Child, Dragon in Exile
4. Skippable with practically no loss of understanding: Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon, though I rather liked them. Also Balance of Trade, Trade Secret, Mouse and Dragon. Also Fledgling, as you can figure out everything you need to know about Theo in Saltation . . . and I’d skip that one, too, except then Theo’s appearance at the end of I Dare would be pretty startling.
5. One more note: about those short story collections: quite a few of the stories are pretty good, and they do a good job filling out gaps in our understanding.