Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: I Dare / Ghost Ship / Dragon Ship / Necessity’s Child / Crystal Soldier / Crystal Dragon

Over the last two months, I have continued listening to audiobooks of the Liaden series. I stopped writing about them because a stressful situation in life (a temporary move to another country) required too much of my energy to leave enough of it around. I still want to say a couple of words of the books I have listened to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to avoid SPOILERS to these books completely, but I will try to limit the damage.

I Dare is a direct sequel to Plan B. It has a somewhat jarring structure: the bulk of the book narrates the adventures of Pat Rin yos’Phelium, a son of Korval, from the time he receives word that Plan B is in effect due to imminent catastrophic damage to the clan and the news that all his kin (including all the characters we have grown used to in the earlier stories) are dead, through his elaborate preparations for balancing this enormous loss until the execution of that balance, which will have tremendous consequences for both Korval and Liad. Interspersed are accounts of the aftermath of the events of Plan B in which our beloved characters are, several months after Pat Rin receiving the death news, very much alive.

Bulk of the Pat Rin thread occurs on Surebleak, a world that was originally colonized by an industrial company for mining purposes but was abandoned (with colonists left on-world) when the company went bankrupt. They never lost contact with the wider civilized galaxy but the colony was not able to attract offworld trade and thus devolved to a relatively low-tech level. The society that Pat Rin encountered was based on the world’s only city consisting of turfs, each run by a Boss, with the only law being the law of the strongest; but under that hard-boiled surface Pat Rin found people with a desire to do better, just no idea of how to do it.

I Dare ends with the two plot strands united. Korval is banished from Liad and starts to establish itself on Surebleak. At the very end, we meet Theo Waitley, a young pilot with a complicated problem…

I skipped the two novels that I would normally read at this point, Fledgling and Saltation. They flesh out the backstory of Theo Waitley and introduce us to her mother Kamele Waitley and her father Jen Sar Kiladi, who we learned in I Dare to be also known as Daav yos’Phelium, Val Con’s father. In the two books Theo begins as the child of two professors living in a university campus, discovers piloting, learns the trade of piloting and gets into heaps of trouble. Both books also contain a rather interesting story of academic politics and academic ethics which I truly recommend to anyone in the academia who has a taste for adventure sf; the second also entertains issues relating to nationalism and its problems. Eventually, Theo’s trouble leads her to seek Delm Korval (whom her father has taught her to regard as the person to whom really big problems should be presented for solving), and to the final chapter of I Dare.

Ghost Ship begins where both I Dare and Saltation end: Theo and her father, both with Delm Korval, and Theo about to present her knotty problem to Delm Korval. You can perhaps see why I skipped the two backstory novels. One part of the problem is an old self-aware ship who had gotten into his head that Theo is his promised Captain; the book is largely about the relationship of Theo and this ship, who is known as Bechimo. Along the way, Theo pilots for a mysterious character known as the Uncle, who has as a side-kick a woman called Dulsey; the ship Theo pilots for the Uncle is called Arin’s Toss. Remember those names; I will mention them again in this post.

Dragon Ship continues where Ghost Ship ends. They really form one continuous story. There is not much I can add to that (but I will mention the good ship Spiral Dance owned and piloted by Cantra yos’Phelium, which appears near the end of the book; they are another pair of names you should remember). Ghost Ship and Dragon Ship also chronicle events on Surebleak and elsewhere, when Korval (and Surebleak society) begins to deal with its changed circumstances. But even though I love those parts of the books, I cannot say I remember them well.

Necessity’s Child introduces a completely new people to the series. The Bedel are “the people of the ship”, who live apart from the gadje, “those others”. On Surebleak, there lives a company of the Bedel, a colony, if you will, left off the ship to learn new things and to be eventually reunited with the ship. Except the ship hasn’t come back after several generations. The Bedel appear a lot like gypsies of the real world, except that they have small little things like the ability to build just about any machine they need (including superhuman-strength glove and leg brace to compensate for grievous injuries to the hand and the leg), and they learn by dreaming. “I will dream on it”, they would say. And this apparently should not be taken as a metaphor.

Necessity’s Child tells events that begin somewhere within Ghost Ship and continue well into Dragon Ship. A daughter of the Bedel company and a son of Korval, both about the same pre-pubescent age, meet and become friends. This in turn allows the Bedel and Korval to start dealing with each other as equals. At the same time, a Liaden man is grievously injured, loses his memory and is brought into the company as a gesture of mercy, where he recuperates, learns to live among the Bedel and searches for clues for who he used to be. We get insights into Korval and into Surebleak, and we learn a lot about the Bedel, of course. It is quite different a book, and one that I initially resisted, but I like it a lot now, after two or three re-reads.

The three books just discussed are the first books in this re-listening round to have a new narrator. Eileen Stevens has a soft voice, but she uses it very well. As much as I dislike Andy Caploe (except for his magnificent Clutch turtle voice), I love Stevens (except for her not-so-magnificent Clutch turtle voice). Her handling of Silain, the Grandmother and the luthia of the Bedel, is quite excellent.

Crystal Soldier introduces a completely different time and place within the Liaden storyline. We meet M. Jela Granthor’s Guard, an M-series soldier; that means he is a genengineered human, deliberately bred to be a soldier; but he is, I gather, considered a legal person. We also meet Dulsey (the similar name is not an accident), a batcher engineer turned waiter. A batcher is an artificial human being, a chattel slave with no rights of her own. We also meet the ssussdriad, an almost extinct species of self-aware and telepathic trees who used to live in symbiosis with a flying species known as dragons. In the beginning of the book, Jela meets the last known living ssussdriad at a war-devastated planet, and wovs to bring it to safety. In return, the ssussdriad (which gets often called Jela’s tree) creates seedpods for Jela and others to eat, which turn out to have surprising properties… And we meet Cantra yos’Phelium Clan Torvin, a dark trader piloting alone the small ship Spiral Dance, which she used to co-pilot until the owner-pilot died and left the ship to her.

Jela, Cantra and Dulsey meet each other about the same time. Exciting stuff happens. Events force Cantra to take both Dulsey and Jela as crew on the Spiral Dance. Dulsey wants to go to the near-mythical place where batchers have created their own free and equal society. Happens Cantra knows that place, it’s beyond the Rim of the galaxy, in the deeps, and she doesn’t think it’s such a free and equal place as that. But Dulsey wants to go. For complicated reasons, Cantra and Jela agree to transport her there. Along the way, they visit a planet that vanishes into thin air almost immediately after they leave, and some other interesting places. Eventually they find the batcher society and meet its leader, known as the Uncle.

Crystal Soldier introduces us also to a time when humankind had been in war with their enemy for longer than anyone cares to remember (longer than any of the principal characters had been alive, I believe). The enemy, called the Sheriekas… “They’d been human once, at least as human as [Jela] was”. Now they wanted to destroy everyone who wasn’t them.

Crystal Dragon is a direct sequel. We meet the dramliz (another name that should be familiar, this time from Plan B); but here they are Sheriekas-made weapons, human-like in appearance but almost godlike in their powers. The Sheriekas are winning, and the end of everything not Sheriekas is near. The only hope for humankind is the liberation of Liad dea’Syl, a master mathematician, or his work, from Osabi Tower where the best scholars of mathematics are seated (or, in more familiar terms, are given their own chair). Cantra and Jela team up again: Cantra becomes an undercover agent (a task well known to her from her past life), a scholar of mathematics Maelyn tay’Nordif who sues for a chair in Osabi and is admitted, with Jela as her dull worker kobold.

The scholarly life in Osabi Tower is striking in how utterly corrupt it is. Scholars are served by grudents (yes, you guess correctly where that word comes from) who eventually are allowed to leave to conduct their wandering. During their wander years they are expected to produce mathematical results, eventually producing “coin”, a theory of such importance that they are regarded as worthy of their own chair. Once seated in a tower (Osabi is the most prestigious but not the only one), they are given their own grudent and are expected to teach and continue research. So much so good. But here comes the strangeness: any seated scholar may challenge any mathematical work of another seated scholar, who is then expected to defend it. This defense happens in public, with grudents and other seated scholars as an audience, and is conducted with truth blades until one or both scholars die. The outcome of the proof decides the fate of both scholars’ life work: one or the other’s work will get destroyed, either because it failed the proof (in the challenged scholar’s case), or because it was found fraudulent (in the challenger’s case). If a scholar survives long enough, they will be elevated to Master and become immune to further challenge.

In this book, we are also introduced to a young pilot Tor An yos’Galan Clan Alkia, who finds that his birth-world no longer exists and starts investigating why. Eventually he ends up at Osabi Tower and meets the other main characters.

Of course, Liad dea’Syl is eventually liberated. The rest of the book tells the story of the great migration from this corrupt universe to the new universe (in which the rest of the series takes place). We meet Dulsey again, this time accompanied by a fellow liberated batcher called Arin. The Uncle makes appearances, as well. Jela obtains Cantra’s promise to keep his tree safe after he dies; partly because of that promise, Cantra and Tor An decide to create a new clan, Clan Korval, with Jela honored as the founder. The Crystal Duology, as the two books are collectively called, thus tell an origins story.

An interesting point I had not remarked before: On Vandar (which we had encountered in Carpe Diem), the locals cursed by the wind. On Surebleak, a cold world, the favourite curse words appear to be related to frozen water (sleet being a common one). Cantra swears by the deeps.

These “books of before” are narrated by Kevin T. Collins. He is by far my favourite of the Liaden narrators. He has a very expressive voice and brings life to the characters. How he handles the difference between Cantra and Maelyn is magnificient.

All the books mentioned here are available in print, ebook and audiobook formats either standalone or (except for audiobooks) in an omnibus edition. At least Fledgling is available also as a legally free ebook. I am too tired today to go hunt for the links. Google is your friend.

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