I think I have finally done it. I think I have finally grasped what it is about the Lee and Miller Liaden books that makes them so damn appealing. On the face of it, they're nothing all that special. It's basically a bunch of traders swanning around the galaxy buying and selling stuff (along with the odd explorer-type known as a Scout), all of them eventually finding their soulmates and having a hand in foiling some big evil plot or another. Fun, yes, romantic, yes, convoluted and entertaining and intriguing, yes... but why, I've often wondered, are these particular merchants, these shopkeepers in space and their assorted paramours, so completely, utterly, irresistibly enthralling to me that each new Liaden novel is like a gift from a just and benevolent deity?
And today, it hit me. And then *I* hit me. And I deserved it. I mean, it's always been pretty obvious. It's 'cause of the Liadens, idiot. Liadens are cool. Why do you think the series is *named after them?* (Okay, no need to be mean, me! Move on.)
I'm right, though. The Liadens *are* cool. They're cool because their society is out of a bygone era, with an honor code straight out of Camelot. And there is something just so endlessly fascinating to modern day us about the storybook visions of a nobler time; these Liadens, with their formal manner of speech and their complex social mores, their ideas of "Balance" and absolute familial duty, hearken back to legends of Knights and Samurai and hell, even Jedi.
But it may be that formal manner of speech that is the real clincher. Liaden sentences unravel like something from Jane Austen by way of "The Tale of the Heike", with just a hint of Teal'c thrown in; a complex mélange of exacting grammar, effusive courtesy and a refusal to say anything the easy way -- like Data, the Liaden do not employ contractions. Like the Japanese, they do not say no. Like FOX, they do not say sorry.
Man, that's cool. (In the Liadens, anyway...)
In addition to this already well-entrenched appeal, we now have the continuing adventures of young Theo Waitley, a talented and cosmos-bound pilot trainee, in her sophomore full-length outing, "Saltation". In her first feature appearance, 2009's "Fledgling", we delved into this (very) minor character's backstory. A backstory in which schoolgirl Theo learns that her troublesome clumsiness and perceived attitude problems are merely a result of her innate piloting skill. Pilots, in the Lee and Miller universe, are born and not made; lightning-fast reflexes and an ability to discern patterns in chaos are their hallmark--and a proficiency at dancing seems to be a bit of a prerequisite, as well.
But Theo is born into a world unused to pilots. Her world is matrilineal and measured, one of scholarly contemplation where being "antisocial" or "inadvertent" is tantamount to being a sociopath. The rules codified in Delgado's hallowed halls of academia are at least as constrictive as those of Liad; it wouldn't surprise one to learn that 2 + 2 = 5 there, or that clocks regularly strike thirteen.
In "Saltation", Theo has escaped the restrictive confines of her birthworld's rules and enters pilot school. Much like any institution of its kind -- Saganami Island, Starfleet Academy, Battle School -- the workload is excessive and the crises are mostly trivial, and we get to see it all from the star pupil's perspective, but Lee and Miller make Theo's years there important; the majority of the book is spent at her lessons, and there are times when you wish that all the foreboding talk of Aliens Out Now! is just a red herring and that Theo will stay in school, just as any dropout millionaire rockstar would advise.
But as we all know, the schooldays can't last, and so Theo must head out into the galaxy as a pilot... and this is where things get a little... hmmm...
First, a quick backtrack. Win Ton yo'Vala is a Liaden Scout Pilot who met Theo in "Fledgling", and is totally into her. The feeling in clearly mutual (Theo has more than a little case of mentionitis when it comes to him), and things between them progress apace. And then, in what I can only describe as the wackiest plot-devicing ever engineered by anyone who is not Brannon Braga, it turns out that Win Ton has screwed up royally, and as a result a massive hunk of dangerous technology has as big of a crush on Theo as he does.
And what is Theo doing when she discovers this? She's drinking tea!
The tea, the tea, the goddamn tea. Theo is way too interested in tea. Tea, tea, tea. Enough with the tea! Sure, it may be full of antioxidants, but really, Theo, you couldn't go even one whole chapter without mentioning your need for quality leaf? Jeez, that's just so... Harold and Kumar of you. Or is this tea fetish just establishing your Liaden (read: Korval) street cred some more? Why bother? We already know your Dad's Daav yos'Phelium!
Now, this last may seem like I'm giving away the Big Reveal, but, uh, no. Anyone at all familiar with the Liaden universe will be well aware that her father, known to her and us as Jen Sar Kiladi, can only be the once Delm of Korval and current possessor of the ghost of lovers past (his dead wife Aelliana's spirit hangs out in his head). In fact, Theo's Liaden debut was a small appearance at the end of 2002's "I Dare", where we first met her as a jump pilot who apparently had no idea of her true ancestry.
On a related note, I highly recommend that you be very familiar indeed with the Liaden universe before you read this book. There is much going on here that must needs be already known, and much that the novice reader would find bewildering (I'm an old hand with these folks, and at times even I was all at sea). Lee and Miller do not believe in recaps at all, and "Saltation" not only takes off from where its precursor "Fledgling" left off, with little to no "previously, on...," but it also finds itself mired in the murky waters stirred up at the end of "I Dare", bringing the Theo story full circle. And as "I Dare" rounds out a multi-book collection of Korval-related shenanigans (or should that be Shan-anigans?) known collectively as the Agent of Change Sequence, I can only imagine the consternation that would be caused by starting with "Saltation". Or even "Fledgling".
Another thing with which one must come to grips in the Liaden novels is that Lee and Miller make up a lot of their own words. It's all very Phillip K. Dick, very William Gibson. And most of these words make sense in context, you get what they're saying; but sometimes they throw in just a few too many new concepts and it is easy to get muddled in their fantastical lexicon. It's Dr. Seuss meets that dystopian 10-years-later on "Dollhouse"... future idiom mixed in with made up creatures, plus a whole slew of fictional branded products and people with apostrophes in their names.
But the most important aspect of these novels that one must be prepared to accept is that of the cliffhanger. This book ended with a remarkably familiar scene, and on an all-too-familiar unfinished explanation. And since the next Liaden novel, Mouse and Dragon (which, if you're already a fan, you'd be like, "Ah, cool, it's about Aelliana and Daav, maybe it's a sequel to Scout's Progress!" -- it is -- but if you're not, you'd be like, "Um, well *that* is a lame title for a sci-fi book"), backtracks to a time well before Theo Waitley, this can only mean that the dratted ellipses that ended "Saltation" (and, indeed, "I Dare" -- eight years ago!) will not be resolved for some time.
In the spirit of Lee and Miller's cruelty, I will end this review on a similar...
[This review first appeared in Geek Speak Magazine, Issue 2]