Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Books of Before

Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, Balance of Trade by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Kevin T. Collins
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Science Fiction

This is the third post in my four part series about the audiobooks in the Liaden Universe, produced by Audible Frontiers. This review covers the audios in the Books of Before sequence. Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon (also referred to as the Great Migration duology) combine with Balance of Trade to make up this sequence which takes place much earlier than the rest of books in the Liaden Universe.

The Plot(s):

Unabridged Length: 13 hrs 56 mins

Crystal Soldier

Years ago, humans divided into two paths. One branch, the sheriekas, sought perfection through their constructs and constant manipulation of genes to make them suitable to each world they found. The other branch, while also practicing genetic engineering, stayed true to the basic human form. After fighting each other to a seeming standstill in the First Phase of war, it seems the sheriekas are back and are nibbling away at the Rim worlds as they drive towards the Inner Worlds.

Temporarily stranded on one of those outer worlds, M. Jela (an engineered soldier) rescues the planet’s last inhabitant – a sentient tree sapling – before his troop lands and rescues him. Cantra yos’Phelium is a smuggler and a loner but when a chance encounter with Jela (and his tree) draws her into the fight against his enemies, the two of them may be humanity’s best hope in a battle against a seemingly invincible opponent.

Crystal Dragon

Unabridged Length: 15 hrs 35 mins

Cantra and Jela are working against the clock to obtain the necessary equations to battle the great Enemy: the sheriekas. Seeking information to be found on the planet Landomist, Cantra assumes the identity of a Seated Scholar in order to infiltrate the scholars’ tower, hauling Jela along under the pretense that he’s a simple servant. Navigating the halls of academia presents unexpected dangers for Cantra, not the least of which is that her past training has altered her in ways that Jela is unprepared for.

Unabridged Length: 15 hrs 33 mins

Balance of Trade

Jethri Gobelyn has spent his life on his family’s trade ship. It hasn’t always been easy being the youngest child of Iza Gobelyn – captain-owner of the spaceship Gobelyn’s Market. After the death of his father, his mother’s resentment of his presence was a palpable presence on-board. When an unexpected chain of events lead to Jethri’s introduction to Master Trader Norn ven’Deelin, who happens to be Liaden, Jethri is offered an opportunity to apprentice on the spaceship Elthoria. Jethri knows a little about Liadens but for a Terran far from home and kin “a little” is just enough to be deadly.

My Thoughts:

While I enjoyed the first two books in this sequence, the primary value to me of Crystal Soldier and Crystal Dragon was as an origin story. There are a lot of characters and background information in the Great Migration duology that enhance your understanding of the rest of the books in the Liaden Universe. Although the plot moves ahead nicely and action sequences are engaging, as stand-alone stories they left me a bit cold. I found Jela to be bland and I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it was because he was so consistently proficient and mild-mannered. I tend to like those characters who might (in another genre) be classified as beta heroes but not here. Cantra was interesting enough but I would have liked a more detailed back-story to flesh her out more fully. Part of the lack of investment I had with the story was due to the fact that although we had clear insight within the internal monologues of both Cantra and Jela regarding how much they came to care for the other, I never felt the actual connection because there was minimal acknowledgment of the relationship between them when they interacted with each other. This had the effect of making the relationship resolution less emotionally dramatic than it could have been. Add to that enemies who, for the most part, were vague and amorphous entities for much of the two books and I didn’t feel I had the character details needed to fully invest myself in the story. I was more involved in spotting references to things I had already ready about in the later (timeline-wise) books.

Balance of Trade was an unexpected surprise to me in audiobook form. I read it in hardback but was still compelled to check my shelves to be sure because not only did the story seem new to me, I loved it in audio whereas I only recall feeling “meh” about it as text. Thinking of my response to the first two books in this sequence, I can see a correlation (although I’m not willing label it causation) that leads me to suspect it may be the more intricate ties of friends, family, and kin and how the authors develop that type of storyline that makes up a lot of what I enjoy about the Liaden Universe.

Jethri’s story is a very enjoyable coming-of-age tale filled with family dynamics and cultural conflict brushed with a light glaze of action and danger. Like in real life, Jethri finds both conflict and friendship in each changing situation and his arc of learning and growing from his experiences is natural and well-drawn. The supporting cast of character is wide and we learn enough about most of them to make them easy to relate to as well as integral to the story. All three books in this sequence are worth the listen but I suspect I’ll be revisiting the audio for Balance of Trade in the future.

The Narration:

Although there are some aspects of Kevin T. Collins’ performance that weren’t my ideal in a narration, his was absolutely my favorite of the four narrations in the Liaden Universe audiobooks. There’s a breathy aspect to his delivery at times – having more to do with a certain method of almost huffing out some words (especially in dramatic moments) than anything inherent in his voice, which is otherwise very pleasant – that was distracting initially. That faded for the most part because Mr. Collins seems to be not so much an actor as a story-teller (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense: he isn’t just reading it). It’s an odd distinction and I suppose a narrator is often both but I really got the sense that he liked the story he was telling.

His character voices were nicely distinct and his light tenor and the way he manages female voices by slight pitch changes makes him one of the better male narrators at giving the listener completely believable female voices. When you combine that with his ability to speak from each character’s view-point and experiences as the story progresses, it makes for a very good narration. In fact, his delivery of Cantra’s break-down when she finally cuts loose her emotions sounded so realistic that I’m unable to hear it as a performance but rather as a real person’s response to grief. I was especially pleased with his delivery of the Liaden phrasing, which closely matched how my internal reader performs it. There were several accents used and they were universally excellent although the Irish lilt in the voices of a couple Liaden characters threw me since my experience with the characters in Local Custom leads me to equate that trait solely with Terrans. Overall, this was a strong performance that I really enjoyed.

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