Since it was first recommended to me, the Liaden series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller has been on my regular re-reading list as one of my all-time favorite series. I’ve just started another reread – well, actually, I’m listening for the second time to the Audible audiobooks. Earlier today, I finished Agent of Change.
This is one of the most logical places to start the series; after all, it is the first book written and published. It is, however, not the earliest in chronological order, and there are good arguments for starting from, for example Conflict of Honors, or from several other portal books in the series. I am, however, drawn always first and foremost to Val Con and Miri, whose story starts here.
Here we have two relatively young people, both in perilous trouble when the story starts, who against their better judgment team up as they run one step ahead of their pursuers. Along the way, they set a room on fire, dine with large intelligent turtles, start a firefight between two factions of their pursuers, drink with mercenaries, and ride a psychedelic starship made of rock. Despite all these fireworks, the plot is fairly simple, with obstacles thrown in and evaded in entertaining but a bit too easy manner. Instead, the focus of the story is firmly in these two characters and their developing relationship, dealing with one’s low self-esteem and the other’s deadly mind programming, each helping the other.
Something that has bothered me over several rereads is whether Val Con deliberately mislead the turtles to interpret certain of his actions as taking Miri as his wife. As Miri later comments, it is usual to let the bride, at least, know before conducting a wedding ceremony (not to mention the huge issue of consent that is just waved away). Given that a turtle is an unimpeachable witness of such things, that could potentially lead to all kinds of nasty business. The issue is never directly confronted in the books, although the consequences are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
This book introduces us to the key aspects of the setting. There’s Val Con’s (so far unnamed) employer, whose unsavory methods (if not its goals) are made clear; there’s the Juntavas, on whose black list Miri had ended up; there are the four major power factions in the galaxy (Terrans, Liadens, and Yxtrang, which are all variants of human, and the larger-than-life Clutch Turtles) with their main relations clearly specified; and there is the surprisingly well-established role of independent mercenary companies in warfare. Val Con’s Clan Korval is mentioned but not developed much, and so is Clan Erob, which will feature significantly in several later books. The setting hinted at is richer than it first seems, but that is not surprising considering that (I believe) Sharon Lee had been working in this setting for a long time before anything was published about it. (I sometimes wonder why nobody ever comments about the name of Clan Erob.)
There are aspects of the detailed setting that betray the books’ 1980s vintage. Nobody carries comms on their person; instead, communications terminals are always bulky enough to require a desk, with public comm booths everywhere. Messages are frequently carried in printouts instead read from screens. There is no ubiquitous information network. These are, however, forgiveable. However, the larger setting contains aspects that have fallen mostly out of sf favour (psi being the most notable); I don’t mind, but others may.
Val Con’s survival loop is introduced very early on. It is an interesting idea, a device that computes a (presumably Bayesian) probability of mission success and personal survival for the situation at hand and allows its user to compute probabilities for many contemplated courses of action. Many specific probabilities are mentioned in this book, and most of them seem unnaturally low. If an agent has 70 % probability of survival, then it shouldn’t take many similar missions for them to get killed. But then again, as Val Con notes, he was not expected to survive even this long.
It is a beautiful book; Lee and Miller certainly have the gift and skill to use the English language in masterful ways. The book contains several languages in dialogue (Terran, High Liaden, Low Liaden, Trade, Clutch, and Yxtrang), which are indicated by differences in the style of English. Of all the authors and series I like a lot, Lee and Miller certainly take the top slot in English usage.
The audiobook is narrated by Andy Caploe. He reads very clearly, to the point of annoyance, but I at least get used to his style fairly fast. His character voices are recognizable but far from the best I have heard in audiobooks. The narration is serviceable.
Agent of Change is available in several formats: a Baen Free Library e-book, as part of the omnibus The Agent Gambit (ebook and paperback), and Audible ebook.