This post is the first of four that discusses the audiobook versions of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe books. I’m going to break the posts out using the four groupings that Audible.com assigned to the series when they produced it under their Audible Frontiers imprint and am starting with the Agent of Change sequence that contains the books (in order) Agent of Change, Conflict of Honors, Carpe Diem, Plan B, and I Dare. I originally read the Liaden books in order of publication, starting with Agent of Change way back in 1988, and if you want the short version of the review it’s this: I loved them then, I love them now, and the audio versions are worthy as either companions to or replacement versions of the text copies.
If you’re new to the Liaden Universe, I’m starting with a broad overview of the world as well as a short summary of the individual books in the Agent of Change sequence. I’m not sure I could do justice to the interwoven plot complexities of this series, even if I wrote out individual reviews for each book, but I’ll do my best to hit the high points in an effort to convince you these books are well worth your time. If this is all old-hat to you and you’re just curious about the audio versions, feel free to move on to my commentary on the narration.
The Story Line(s):Update to original post: I’m a bit chagrined to say that it’s been brought to my attention that the summaries below may contain spoilers. I don’t believe there’s anything that will impact your listening enjoyment but let’s face it, I now have such a familiarity with these books that I can no longer recall what struck me as unexpected and what didn’t.
Space ships, adventure, conspiracy, a touch of the paranormal, danger, and romance! What, you want more? How about eight-foot tall sentient space-faring turtles? It may sound like an odd combination but this series is a perfect (and perfectly seamless) blend of everything I love in a story. OK, the turtles were an unexpected (and very fun) surprise but…
The overarching story of the Agent of Change sequence is that of Clan Korval – a family group based on the planet Liad – whose history has led them to acquire, honor, and protect space ships and their pilots. Liaden society has very strict social rules that define a code of behavior (the Code). A Liaden acts according to the Code and his or her melant’i (personal sense of honor) in any given situation. Obedience to the Delm (head) of the clan is paramount and he or she will act in the best interest of the entire clan, including arranging contract marriages for its members. Korval is considered first among the clans of Liad but recent events have whittled their numbers down to a dangerously few handful.
In Agent of Change, Val Con yos’Phelium has temporarily passed the powers of Delm to his cousin and foster-sister and has been working off-planet under the aegis of the Liaden Department of the Interior as a spy. Miri Robertson, self-described Terran and retired mercenary, is being hunted by the Juntavas (think mafia) after taking a job as a bodyguard for an ex-Juntavas member. When they cross paths, both are trailing trouble behind them but throw in a group of eight foot turtles and orchestrated chaos ensues.
In Conflict of Honors, we’re introduced to Val Con’s cousin and foster-brother, Shan yos’Galan, who is Captain and Master Trader of the trade-ship Dutiful Passage. When Priscilla Mendoza hires on as, nominally, Pet Librarian, Shan and Priscilla find they have something in common: they’ve both earned the enmity of Sav Rid Olanek, the Captain of the trade-ship Daxflan. As Priscilla and Shan continue on the ship’s trade route, escalating attempts to harm both ship and crew force a final confrontation.
Carpe Diem returns us to Val Con and Miri as they learn that the Department of the Interior is arrayed against them and, in fact, seeks the destruction of Korval in its entirety. Marooned on an interdicted world, they must make the best of things (which includes falling in love) until they can devise a way off planet. There are smaller corollary story-lines involving Shan and Priscilla as well as other members of Clan Korval on Liad as they begin preparations for an offensive against the Department of the Interior.
Plan B finds Val Con and Miri off the interdicted world they were stranded on and enmeshed in an attack against the world of Lytaxin, where Miri’s family is housed. An invasion of the war-like Yxtrang has trapped them and prevented Shan and Priscilla from joining forces with them in the battle against both the Yxtrang and the Department. On Liad, the members of Clan Korval are sent into hiding while plans to neutralize the Department of the Interior are being formulated.
In I Dare, in addition to the various plot threads involving the members of Clan Korval we’ve already met beginning to weave into a conclusion, Pat Rin yos’Phelium makes his entrance. On the world of Surebleak, Pat Rin is in hiding from the Department but he’s determined not to go quietly. He begins building a base from which to strike back at the Department on behalf of his clan. With the help of the Juntavas “judge”, Natesa the Assassin, he sets himself up as a “boss” in order to build a space port and gather ships to bring against the Department on Liad.
Why These Books Rock:
Sometimes you find an author (or in this case, two) who seems able to do no wrong when it comes to writing stories that suit your reading tastes. With each book, I’ve come to expect
- Believable and imperfect characters that seem like old friends when I catch up with them somewhere in another book
- Well-paced plotting that snags my interest and doesn’t let go until the story reaches its conclusion
- Elements of science fiction that intrigue the reader but never overwhelm
- Romance, to one degree or another
- Nicely encapsulated plots for each book that never-the-less seamlessly blend into the overall series structure
- An ideal in terms of sexual politics and gender roles (namely that there are no stereotyped roles) as well as the idea of sexuality as a continuum – none of which seems to shout out for attention because it’s not presented as an agenda item of the author but is simply the makeup of the universe
For those and so many other reasons, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the sum total of my “authors you want to have with you when you get stranded on a desert island” list. Er, you have one of those too, right? RIGHT?!
I’ve been working my way through this series with an audio re-read, one after another, and have enjoyed making the plot connections that eluded me the first time around. I’m also finding that the books have held up well against both my memory of how good they are and the passage of time, which can sometimes make books feel dated. I rarely re-read books anymore but for a long time, my battered copy of the Del Rey paperback of Conflict of Honors was my comfort read and it still has a place on my shelves. It may seem an odd thing to say about a work of genre fiction but that book had a surprising influence on my life. With Banned Book Week just over in the U.S., I’ve been thinking about the part books play in our lives and why some people consider them “dangerous” and I can definitively say that books are indeed dangerous creatures. Dangerous in that they can change the way you understand the world, even those seemingly simple genre fiction books. When I read that paperback as a kid, for the first time I understood that someone, somewhere, had a different perspective on the power dynamics of gender than my experience had taught me and, most importantly for me as an adolescent coming to terms with being a lesbian, that somewhere out there (and I don’t mean in the universe between the pages but in the real world as represented by the the mind that created that fictional world) what I was might not be thought such a terrible thing. But enough of my wandering down memory lane. Let’s talk about….
Andy Caploe is the narrator for this sequence of books and this was my first experience with his performance. Initially, I had some qualms about his delivery. My listening preference has always leaned towards a subtle delivery. In addition, I’ll admit to an aural bias in that I find it easier to hear as “real” a female narrator performing male characters than male narrators performing female voices. Mr. Caploe has what strikes me as a voice-over delivery more than a narration; I could easily imagine him as the dramatic voice-over artist for a movie trailer with his deep voice and resonant tone and his deliberate pacing. That kind of voice, while it’s definitely delicious to my ear, is the type that makes it difficult for me to immerse myself in a story without being yanked out by the sound of female characters. But…. (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) here’s what he does rather well and why I’m glad I listened and why his narration worked for me in the end: in the list of performance markers that I measure a narration against, he hits almost all of them.
His deliberate cadence was a bit too slow for me but it gave full weight and measure to the authors’ words. ‘Chewing the syntax’ is a marker that’s all about acknowledging that authors are (or should be) intentional in their choice of words and Mr. Caploe conveyed his understanding of that with the weight he gave them. He wasn’t just drawling out the lines, he was working them over with deliberation and not tossing some aside as if they were unimportant. The vocal pacing did occasionally get in the way of fully convincing me that the characters were experiencing events in the moment. That sense of ‘the here and now’ seemed more prevalent for some characters than others – primarily those with the most distinctive voices. His delivery of dialogue was good – the back and forth between characters always seemed consistent in reaction with the previous line spoken.
As he cycled through the voices and perspectives of the various characters, I was convinced I was hearing the unique point of view of the individuals and those individuals were all very clearly differentiated. Having read the books previously, I was delighted that the voices created for Edger, Nova, Natesa, the non-specific Yxtrang, and Miri were completely in sync with what I might have done (if I had even the slightest smidge of talent in that arena.) His choices for Pat Rin and Ren Zel were at odds with what I was expecting but a quick evaluation of their characters as outlined in the books told me my expectations were wrong and those two ended up being my some of my favorites to listen to. There wasn’t a call for many accents but the few in play were well done as were the changes in delivery style between Val Con’s moments of Liaden formality, Miri’s rough mercenary speech patterns, and the subtle changes that clearly delineated the different planets of origin. Overall, I’m glad I listened and I ended up enjoying the performance.
If I was grading this sequence – averaging across all five books – it would be an A- for the books and a B- for the narration.
A note on reading order:
The audio versions of these books were produced by Audible.com. They broke it up into four sets of books, which are outlined here. If you’re an Audible member, they also have free hour-long excerpts of each book, which I think is pretty handy. The sequences on the Audible page are in chronological (for the Liaden Universe) order. If you decide to give them a try, here’s my suggested reading/listening order based on your usual genre preference (with my sole intent being to make sure you get sucked in from the start and enjoy this series as much as I do):
If your first choice is Science Fiction:
The Books of Before Sequence, The Agent of Change Sequence, The Space Regencies Sequence, The Theo Waitley Sequence
If your first choice is Romance:
The Space Regencies Sequence, The Agent of Change Sequence, The Books of Before Sequence, The Theo Waitley Sequence
If any series must be read in chronological order no matter what:
The Books of Before Sequence, The Space Regencies Sequence, The Agent of Change Sequence, The Theo Waitley Sequence
Anyone not mentioned above:
The Agent of Change Sequence, The Space Regencies Sequence, The Theo Waitley Sequence, The Books of Before Sequence