Sharon Lee & Steve Miller: Carpe Diem and Prodigal Son

Normally, it takes me two to four weeks to listen to an audiobook from beginning to end, depending on the narrator’s speed, the length of the book and how much I invest daily in it. You see, normally I only listen for no more than an hour, often no more than 30 minutes, a day, while getting ready to sleep in the evening. Sometimes I manage a book in one week, if I have been having difficulty catching sleep and thus ending up listening for two hours or more an evening.

This week has been unusual. I’ve been at home due to a stomach bug since Wednesday, with not much energy to do anything. Listening to an audiobook is an easy way to spend time in bed, or in the bathroom, and takes less energy than actually reading myself, or even watching television. And if I happen to drift off (which happened often in Wednesday when I had a moderate fever), the Audible player’s automatic timer stops playing after 30 minutes or so (annoyingly, I must remember to set it up that way each time), and rewinding allows me to find a place I still remember having heard. Spending 12 hours listening to a book a day is not unusual in these circumstances. Thus, it is not surprising that I finished the 15-hour book Carpe Diem a little more than a day after I had finished Agent of Change. I capped it by reading (from an ebook, not an audiobook) the short story Prodigal Son, which revisits the key setting and characters of the novel I had just completed.

Carpe Diem continues directly from where Agent of Change left off, in fact overlapping by a chapter. Given that, this review will necessarily contain spoilers for Agent of Change. The book also picks up characters and worldbuilding from Conflict of Honors, which is a loosely connected prequel published between these two books; while Carpe Diem can perfectly well be read without that background, it does (like this review) contain some spoilers for Conflict of Honors.

Prodigal Son additionally contains significant spoilers for Plan B and I Dare, since it’s set after the events of those books. I will avoid those spoilers in this review.

SPOILERS to Agent of Change and Conflict of Honors below.

So, Val Con and Miri escape their pursuers, only to be stranded on a planet called Vandar whose technology reminds me of early 20th Century Earth. Their goal is to somehow gain access to transmitters or the ability to build transmitters for summoning help. Like in Agent of Change, the Vandar-based action-adventure plot is subservient to the characters, and indeed the development of Val Con and Miri’s relationship and the network of local friends they pick up along the way is a key part of the Vandar sequence.

Of course, their turtle friends are aware that they have vanished without trace; they alert Val Con’s family, Clan Korval, who turns out to have quite a lot of resources available for searching, not limited to just wealth and power. Val Con’s foster sister Anthora is a dramliza, a wizard; early on in the book we see her being able to tell with no possibility of error than Val Con and Miri are both alive, and we later see her use some other abilities in self-defense. Her elder brother, Val Con’s foster brother Shan, is himself only a healer, a lesser talent in the observation and manipulation of the world by the mind without the help of the body, but his lady, Priscilla, is herself a dramliza, and makes several daring non-physical trips in hopes of making contact with Val Con. This part of the book is much more plot-driven than the Vandar sequence, but even here, characters are well drawn individuals. (I refuse to use the meaningless cliche of the dimensionality of characters.) Their main development is, however, left for other books.

It would be too much of a spoiler for me to discuss how the Juntavas figure into the plot; suffice to say that they play their part. However, the role of Val Con’s employer merits discussion. First of all, it is given a name: the Department of the Interior. Its goal is also specified: the conquest of the inhabited universe in the name of Liad (the planet on which Clan Korval is based). I have two comments to make about these. On the one hand, I find it ironic that a secret organization within the government that has significant foreign policy implications is called a department of the interior. On the other hand, I almost commented in my review of Agent of Change how the interstellar relations in that book appear strangely civilized, with no warlordism, or strong interstellar governments, in sight; but then, while listening to this book, it hit me: there are both the Juntavas and the Department, and the fact that we haven’t heard of others doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The Department of the Interior is, of course, anxious to recover its agent Val Con yos’Phelium, and sends one of its best agents to investigate, and eventually, to retrieve him. Tyl Von sig’Alda is a full Agent of Change like Val Con yos’Phelium was; but it is interesting to contrast their approaches. For Val Con, the survival loop appeared always to be a tool, consulted among many other sources of data, and ignored if it seemed a good idea. Tyl Von, however, appears to place much more faith in the loop, and uses its probability calculations much like modern scientists use p-values: if the probability of one possibility is high enough, he commits himself to the belief that this possibility is, in fact, the truth. I was particularly struck by this phrase in the narration late in the book: “With the Loop’s approval, sig’Alda moved.” I don’t think it would even occur to Val Con to consider the loop as someone who might approve things. And in the end, this difference in them probably also explains the difference in the final outcome for these two characters.

Ever since I first read this book, I became fascinated with the Rainbow. It is described as a relaxation technique, and its broad outline is given: one imagines each color of the rainbow in turn, assigning to each a particular sub-task of relaxation, and when one has completed the rainbow, one comes to a mental staircase that leads to one’s unique mental room, in which one can choose to among several options like sleep and ordering the subconscious to study the day’s lessons. However, the detailed script of the technique is never given. I have wondered if it is a real thing, that is, something one might actually accomplish in our universe; in the book, there is no mention that it requires any special talent, and it sounds vaguely similar to other relaxation techniques I have been taught. I have not, however, been able to find any sources apart the Liaden books for it.

This book continues the trend begun in Agent of Change of representing different in-story languages as differences in the English used in the dialogue and the narration. This is particularly striking in how Val Con and Miri learning the unfamiliar language of Benish (the local language in the part of Vandar where they landed) is described in the following snippet:

In the clip, Miri refers to Val Con in her mind as her partner, addresses him as boss, and calls herself in her mind Robertson. Their hostess, Zhena Trelu, refers to Miri as Meri.

All right, Robertson, she directed herself. Use your brain—if you got one.
She looked about, then picked up the wooden spoon lying on the stove and showed it to Zhena Trelu. She turned and pointed at the table, beside which stood her partner, watching the proceedings with interest.
The old woman looked at the spoon, looked at the table, and then laughed. “Oh, is my memory going back on me! Silverware, is that it?” she asked the girl, who only smiled, uncomprehending.
Taking the spoon and putting it back where it belonged, Zhena Trelu went to the cupboard once more. “Spoons,” she said clearly. “Knives. Forks.”
Spoons.” the girl repeated obediently as each set was placed in her hands. “Knives. Forks.”
“That’s right,” Zhena Trelu said encouragingly. She made a sweeping motion with her hands, trying to indicate all the items the girl held. “Silverware.”
Meri’s brows pulled together in a frown. “Silverware,” she said, and the other woman smiled and went back to arranging flowers.
Spoons,” Miri told Val Con, shoving them into his hand. “Knives. Forks.” She frowned. “That all seems simple enough. You savvy silverware, boss?”
“Perhaps knives, spoons, and forks are separate names and silverware is the name for all together?”
“Not too bad, for a bald-headed guess.”

Notice how ordinary English words like knives and forks are used instead of made-up words to describe Zhena Trelu’s use of Benish, and yet, it is made perfectly clear to the reader how these Benish (not English) words are totally unknown to Miri and Val Con, until they are learned. Note that the emphasis is just that, the character’s own emphasis, and not simply a stylistic technique to call out foreign words.

I will not repeat the things I already wrote in my review of Agent of Change about how I find the language usage beautiful, or about how I regard Andy Caploe’s narration. My opinion is unchanged on both counts.

Carpe Diem was for a long time my favourite book in the Liaden universe; I particularly liked the development of Val Con and Miri’s relationship. I still like it, and the book, a lot; but I find myself eagerly waiting for the sequel, Plan B, and certain very fondly anticipated scenes in it. Which I’ll go and listen to once I publish this review.

In Prodigal Son, Val Con returns to Vandar to discover that all is not well. He goes about doing something about that. It is a satisfying continuation of the Vandar sequence. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend it to anyone who hasn’t already finished Plan B and I Dare, as its frame story spoils those books in significant ways.

Carpe Diem is available as an individual ebook, as part of the omnibus The Agent Gambit (ebook and paperback), and as an individual Audible audiobook.

Prodigal Son is available in two short story collections (links to ebooks): Allies: Adventures in the Liaden Universe® No. 12 and A Liaden Universe Constellation, Volume 2 (available also as a paperback).

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