Homefront: A Novel of the Transgenic Wars by Scott James Magner

Homefront: A Novel of the Transgenic Wars by Scott James MagnerHomefront: A Novel of the Transgenic Wars by Scott James Magner
Narrator: Allyson Johnson
Published by Audible Studios on 11/11/14
Genres: Science Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audible

Story: B-
Narration: B

Quick Review:

Homefront is a thoughtful speculative fiction novel with a nice mix of action and emotion. Although I struggled to remain engaged with it consistently, overall the combination of physical conflict, interpersonal clashes, and internal quandaries kept the story moving forward at a nice clip. The narration allows the listener to easily distinguish between individuals in a diverse cast of characters and enhances the pacing of the story.

My Thoughts:

In a future world where humanity has been infected with a transgenic virus and individuals have mutated with an unbelievable rapidity to gain enhanced abilities—from telepathy to extra arms or eyes—there are both unmodified humans and a range of modified humans (“mods” or “gennies”) . The latter are divided into something like castes—Alphas as the ruling caste then Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Omega—in descending order of mutation away from an unmodified human form. The mods were exiled to the outer colonies and the story opens as a small contingent of mods are returning to the inner worlds with a cargo of “sleeper” mods to establish a hidden colony.

Jantine is a Beta and captain of the mission to establish a secure and hidden base for her crew and cargo. Although it’s generally expected to be a suicide mission, she succeeds in landing her crew but not before encountering local planetary defense forces engaged in an apparent civil war. The people who surround Jantine are varied and complex. In the moment, they are fully realized characters with varied motivations and feelings. Part of my inability to remain engaged with them, though, is that too much of their back story and how that made them who they are is pushed off until later. I struggled with the dynamics that arced between the mods running the operation and was annoyed with some rapid flip-flopping of emotions that seemed odd for such highly trained “super soldiers.” A lot of the cause for that became clear later but by then, it was a bit too late for me to do my usual readerly bonding with them and I was left with a strictly intellectual curiosity for the story instead.

The introduction of an unmodified human to the group provided a nice basis for some mild pondering on what it was about the mods (other than a physical appearance for some) that caused them to be considered inhuman or worth exiling (as if people need a logical reason, right?) There was also a light vein of philosophical musing to be had about how family is defined and where we choose to place our value in that construction. Lieutenant Mira Harlan is unwillingly swept along in the mods’ plan and finds herself irrevocably changed by her contact with them.

There was a fair amount of head-hopping and while the changes in points-of-view added complexity and interest to the story , they also emphasized the tell rather than show aspects engendered by the amount of internal thoughts that recapped events or motivations. That narrative tool struck me as over used and not in line with how thoughts generally manifest themselves. To an extent, this was also emphasized by my biggest point of contention with the narration style: a tendency to slow certain sentences down and phrase them in a thoughtful manner more often that the text or the flow of general human speech would indicate is appropriate.

Magner does an excellent job conveying the sense of “other” the Mods and their changed physiology (and more to the point, thought processes and perspectives) embody while balancing that against the things that still make them human. There’s a lot that comes to light in the last few chapters and while there’s a general wrap-up, I am interested in what the future holds for the mods and the world they landed on.

The Narration:

If you’re familiar with Allyson Johnson’s narration of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series and enjoyed the audiobooks (as I did) then read no farther, you’re good to go with this one. I admit, I was hoping for the more casual delivery she brought to Kim Knox’s Dark Dealings (which struck me as more organic in tone) but she brings considerable skill to this story nonetheless.

Ms. Johnson excels at differentiating characters, both between individuals and in the typical vocal characteristics that cue a listener to male or female. She’s attentive to the author’s narrative and chews over the syntax in service to it. Her dialogue delivery is reactive and flows naturally and while the frequency with which lines are given a thoughtful and slower delivery chimes against my ear as excessive and not always in line with the context, she still keeps the story moving at a nice pace. The narration on this one actually helped me track through some of the complexities in the story so I suggest you check out the sample and see how it works for you.

I received this book at no cost from Audible Studios in exchange for a review. The book’s source does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day by David LevithanEvery Day by David Levithan
Narrator: Alex McKenna
Series: Every Day #1
Published by Listening Library on 8/28/12
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Every day a different body. Every day a different life. Every day in love with the same girl.

There’s never any warning about where it will be or who it will be. A has made peace with that, even established guidelines by which to live: Never get too attached. Avoid being noticed. Do not interfere.

It’s all fine until the morning that A wakes up in the body of Justin and meets Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. From that moment, the rules by which A has been living no longer apply. Because finally A has found someone he wants to be with—day in, day out, day after day.

Story: C-
Narration: B-

Quick Review:

Although the premise was intriguing and provided a clever framework for a discussion of gender identity, sexual orientation, and the politics of gender expression, there was a such a lack of depth to the primary relationship (that was, ostensibly, the primary motivation for all of the protagonist’s actions) that the story seemed far less of a stimulating philosophical exercise or a plot driven book and more of an excuse for thinly veiled moralizing. The narration was likely what sustained me enough to finish the book.

*Note: this review contains a mild (possible) spoiler*

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed several things about this book but the longer it went on the more irked I became by what I perceived as a weakness in how the story was constructed and in the dilution of some very interesting social issues caused by the sheer variety of them. When “A” – the only true name we know the protagonist by — hops into the body of a high school boy, she (he? A seems to be gender neutral but I’ll use “she” since the audiobook narrator was female) makes an immediate connection to her host’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. This instant attraction/love is what drives the rest of the book as A migrates from body to body on a 24 hour schedule, each day trying to find her way back to Rhiannon.

We know the transition happens at midnight and that the sex of the host doesn’t matter. A seems to body jump to someone who is the same age (she grew up — literally and figuratively — jumping) she is chronologically and the hosts seem to be in the same general geographic location (within the same state) she is. By the end, though, I was left with a lot of unanswered questions about the how and why of A’s ability to switch bodies. While that would have worked for me if the book held steady to a philosophical/social issues bent, it became a niggling issue for me when the end of the story seemed to try to straighten itself into a more conventional plot-driven spec-fic book by introducing another body jumper and starting A on the path to discovering who else like her was out there and how she could better control her jumps. I do have to take part of the blame for the frustration those unanswered questions caused because I formed an expectation that this was a stand-alone book rather than part of a series and it seems pretty clear it’s intended to be the first in a series.

The impression we get is that Rhiannon is beaten down by her relationship with Justin and that she’s desperately unhappy but there’s little to no in-depth interactions that establish that. A also doesn’t seem to identify any character traits in Rhiannon that drives the intense attraction; she just decides Rhiannon is “the one” and then keeps showing up wherever Rhiannon is, wanting to forge a connection. This lack of solid background and character development makes Rhiannon seem like little more than a placeholder and a very tenuous anchor with which to tether the story of A’s body jumps. It also made A seem like a bit of a stalker since there was a large disparity in the level of feeling Rhiannon and A had for each other for much of the book.

Those body jumps then end up seeming issue driven: the lesbian host, the host who is a bully, the undocumented worker, the goth girl suffering from depression who plans to kill herself, the obese host, the transgender host, etc. When this method of illuminating a social or psychological issue works, it can be very moving for the listener (the suicidal host was particularly well-written and I found myself wishing the story would completely branch off there and permanently hop to that side-story) but the quick jump to the next issue (especially if it was less than successfully portrayed as was the case with the obese host) made it feel like a cheap “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” parlor trick rather than in in-depth consideration of gender or sexual identity or mental health or… you get the point.

Also problematic for me was the disregard A ended up showing for the host bodies after initially seeming to respect that she was just visiting. Once Rhiannon entered the picture, A was fine with making the host bodies do whatever was necessary to get close to her. Mid-way through there was a moment of “this body has never had sex so I don’t feel right having sex with you while I’m in it” but that seemed a pretty spurious moral decision considering her out-of-character (for the host) actions before and after that scene — including being responsible for one host body getting beaten up. This felt more like inconsistency in characterization rather than an attempt to delve into how Rhiannon influenced A’s existing moral compass or a cautionary tale about how crazy love can make someone act. On the other hand, a discussion I had with someone about this book also pointed out to me that kind of inconsistent behavior and indecision is a pretty typical teen characteristic.

Where this book did succeed for me (yes, it did on some levels) was the manner in which A was made convincingly gender-neutral. Although I would have been just as happy with a specifically female or male A swapping bodies and engaging in romantic interactions with both sexes, that would be preaching to the choir and the gender neutral A worked well to emphasize the universal nature of love — regardless of the sex of the object of affection. I also found the premise exceedingly clever and it was an excellent framework that could have been used to either dig deeply into one or two social issues (rather than callowly skimming over many) via the vehicle of very accessible fiction or to cleverly twist listener expectations until the brittle ones break.

Overall it was a book that started well for me but kind of fell apart as it went along. I didn’t hate it and the aspects that failed for me might very well be exactly what appeals to a teen reader struggling with their sexual or gender identity

The Narration:

Alex McKenna has rough/craggy voice (more so in this audiobook than in the other audio samples of her work I listened to) that my ear needed to adjust to. Although the character voices were easily distinguishable, the persistence of a very noticeable vocal characteristic like that across all the characters, many of who are high school kids, wasn’t ideal in terms of allowing each character to seem real and unique. It was ideal for creating a relatively gender neutral voice for A that helped maintain my connection with her character without being jarred by the changes in the sex of her host bodies. I’m also going to hypothesize that it might also subconsciously mitigate some of the immediate outrage some listeners might feel based on the diversity of sexual/gender identity covered. Ms. McKenna delivered the text with thoughtfulness and she inhabited the characters fully. The dialogue was natural sounding and overall, the narration ended up working pretty well for me.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

The 5th Wave by Rick YanceyThe 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Narrator: Brandon Espinoza, Phoebe Strole
Published by Penguin Audio on 5/7/13
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
two-stars

 

Story: C-
Narration: B

Quick Review:

I’ve seen enough reviews of this one to know that I’m definitely the odd woman out in my experience with this book but it failed to engage me for multiple reasons. The narration was fine but didn’t elevate the story enough to overcome my plot, character, and stylistic complaints. It’s not a bad book but I just found it so-so.

Publisher’s Blurb:

After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.

Now, it’s the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth’s last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie’s only hope for rescuing her brother—or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

My Thoughts:

Have you ever read a book and, when you break it down into its component parts, it’s obvious that you should have really enjoyed it but when you consider your overall experience with it, it was just sorta OK? That was my experience with The 5th Wave. I started out appreciating that the post-apocalyptic atmosphere was generated by an alien invasion rather than a man-made crisis but the shine wore off that aspect pretty quickly. The aliens are, for all intents and purposes, absent in the story. Oh, they’re hovering in a spaceship above planet earth. They’ve definitely caused damage to Earth and killed billions of humans. They’ve obviously made incursions onto the planet as  well. My discontent is that there’s no backstory to the aliens which means there’s no depth to their motivation for the invasion and although we meet some aliens, they seem so completely human in their thought processes and actions that I could have easily been reading a regular ol’ dime-a-dozen post-apocalyptic novel.

I liked the concept of waves of destruction intended to decimate the earth’s population in phases rather than having a gun-toting alien force land and commence wholesale slaughter. I liked the way the author configured each wave as a different kind of attack. There wasn’t a lot of detail on how it was accomplished or scientific background to it but that was understandable since the description of the waves was primarily coming from a teenager who had experienced the terrible aftermath of each attack. The story of the progression of the attacks was also rolled out gradually and it worked well as an accompaniment to the story as we learned more about Cassie.

The book is presented from the points-of-view of four characters although two of them get the most page time. The part we see from Cassie’s little brother’s perspective was, with the exception of one scene, completely pointless in my opinion. The POV switches didn’t transition with any kind of noticeable logic and when we moved from a point of drama to an alternate perspective that was in a development phase, any energy built in the storyline was killed. The fact of the matter is, I actually wasn’t involved enough to be truly disappointed at the POV switch.

Part of my lack of involvement was because I wasn’t truly invested in these characters. I came away from the novel with pretty flat character précis:

Cassie: crushed on Ben in High School but Ben never noticed her. She had to flee the aliens with her father and brother but she was separated from them. She’s being hunted by a sniper. She gets shot and then she meets Evan and the girl who started off seeming competent became pointlessly stubborn and willing to put up with this strange guy who keeps standing outside her room/bathroom/any-room-she’s-in breathing heavily. (OK, maybe he wasn’t breathing heavily but he did come across as a creepy stalker.)

Evan: farmboy who lost his family. He rescues Cassie and proceeds to act all creepy stalker. He goes out every night hunting, never comes back with food, and insta-bonds with Cassie, refusing to let her do anything by herself.

Zombie: I can hear you saying it… “wait, wait, who’s Zombie? He wasn’t mentioned in the Publisher’s blurb!” I know, right? I was a little surprised when he showed up too, let alone discovering I was going to spend so much time with him. He’s probably the most interesting of the characters but his part in the story is to act as the third side in some zero-on-the-chemistry-meter love triangle and to act as grist for the story-line mill about the boot camp that’s set up in a military installation where young survivors are broken down and then rebuilt into a fighting force that’s sent out to kill anyone identified as an Other. I found the details and the build-up of the bootcamp scenes no different from most of the “we’re in the army now” movies I’ve watched that cover the topic. (Oh, as for the name “Zombie,” everyone had nicknames in the bootcamp so expect to read about Nugget, Poundcake, Oompa, Flintstone, Teacup, Tank, etc.)

Sammy: cute little boy who gets separated from his sister and his stuffed bear and lives with the hope she’ll come for him.

I took issue with a few plot items that didn’t strike me as logical, one of which was (mild spoiler):

View Spoiler »

My last complaint has to do with the writing. In addition to repetitious descriptions peppered throughout, there were a lot of short sentences; in fact, the average words per sentence count was 9.6. Sometimes that’s an effective way to build tension or create a sense of rapid forward momentum but not so much in this book. For example of the truncated nature of many sections of the book:

Nobody listened. He wasn’t the boss of us anymore. The People in Charge had arrived.

And then, just as unexpectedly as it had come, the helicopter made one last turn and thundered out of sight. The sound of its rotors faded. A heavy silence flooded in after it. We were confused, stunned, frightened. They must have seen us. Why didn’t they land?

We waited for the helicopter to come back. All morning we waited. People packed up their things.

 ***

They prowl in groups. They die in clumps. Clumps of smashups. Clumps of stalls. They glimmer in the distance like jewels. And suddenly the clumps stop. The road is empty for miles.

 ***

I looked up at Corporal Branch. “Isn’t that right?”

“That’s right.”

“He looks like Darth Vader,” Sammy whispered. “Sounds like him, too.”

“Right, and remember what happens? He turns into a good guy at the end.”

“Only after he blows up a whole planet and kills a lot of people.”

I couldn’t help it—I laughed. God, he was smart. Sometimes I thought he was smarter than me and Dad combined.

“You’re going to come later, Cassie?”

“You bet I am.”

“Promise?”

I promised. Whatever happened. No. Matter. What.

That was all he needed to hear. He pushed the teddy bear into my chest.

“Sam?”

“For when you’re scared. But don’t leave him.” He held up a tiny finger to emphasize his point. “Don’t forget.”

He stuck out his hand to the corporal. “Lead on, Vader!” Gloved hand engulfed pudgy hand. The first step was almost too high for his little legs.

Sammy was the last to board. The door closed. Dad tried to put his arm around me. I stepped away. The engine revved. The air brakes hissed.

When they weren’t short, they were often well-populated with commas which (as they absolutely should) the audiobook narrators gave their full attention. Unfortunately, this made even many of the longer sentences sound somewhat choppy.

I like the concept of the story and the idea of how it progressed but the writing style didn’t suit me and there was a bit too much information telegraphed in advance of events that gave them less impact that I would have liked. The ending was a little too quick and tidy and left me unsatisfied. I don’t consider this a bad book, just not a good book for me.

The Narration:

I’m resistant to giving an in-depth review of my experience with the narration because I’m finding it almost impossible not to conflate my issues with the text with complaints about the narration. My primary issue with the narration was the choppy nature of it but I think it’s safe to wholly ascribe that to the narrators’ diligence in chewing the syntax and giving full weight to the author’s intent (and punctuation) rather than a failure in the performance.

Both narrators have pleasant voices and provide the listener with distinct character voices. Phoebe Strole was especially good at infusing Cassie’s more sardonic lines with the perfect amount of humor and I snorted aloud more than once. Brandon Espinoza handled the voices of the various bootcamp recruits well. He gave them age-appropriate voices while also ably voicing the testosterone-fueled tension that erupted between them while maintaining a sense of the vulnerability present in their voices as their world seemed to crash around them.

two-stars

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Theo Waitley Sequence

Fledgling, Saltation, Ghost Ship, Dragon Ship by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Eileen Stevens
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Science Fiction

I’m wrapping up my four post series reviewing the audiobooks in the Liaden Universe with a review of the Theo Waitley sequence.

The Plots (via the publisher’s summary):

Unabridged Length: 13 hrs 21 mins

Fledgling

“Theo Waitley has lived all her young life on Delgado, a Safe World that is home to one of the galaxy’s premier institutions of higher learning. Both Theo’s mother, Kamele, and Kamele’s onagrata Jen Sar Kiladi, are professors at the university, and they all live comfortably together, just like they have for all of Theo’s life, in Jen Sar’s house at the outskirts of town. Suddenly, though, Theo’s life changes. Kamele leaves Jen Sar and moves herself and Theo back into faculty housing, which is not what Theo is used to.

Once settled back inside the Wall, Kamele becomes embroiled in faculty politics, and is appointed sub-chair of her department. Meanwhile, Theo who has a notation in her file indicating that she is “physically challenged,” has a series of misadventures, including pulling her best friend down on the belt-ride to class, and hurting a teammate during a savage game. With notes piling up in her file, Theo only wants to go “home”, to the house in the suburbs, and have everything just like it used to be.

Then, Kamele uncovers evidence of possible dishonest scholarship inside of her department. In order to clear the department, she and a team of senior professors must go off-world to perform a forensic document search. Theo hopes this will mean that she’ll be left in the care of the man she calls “Father”, Professor Kiladi, and is horrified to learn that Kamele means to bring Theo with her!”

Saltation

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 40 mins

“Theo, star pilot wannabe and troubled misfit has been accepted, against all her expectations, to Anlingdin. It’s the Hogwarts of star piloting academies, and Theo has been selected to train there with the best-of-the-best. Even better – she can finally leave behind the gawky, misfit days of teenage angst her previous life so complicated before. Great Liaden star pilots are born with a bang and not a whimper – and Theo has set a course to graduate from misfit to genuine maverick.”

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 48 mins

Ghost Ship

“Theo Waitley is an ace starship pilot – and pure maverick. Her mom is a renowned Terran scholar and her birth father is an interstellar aristocrat in hiding. She still feels like a socially challenged misfit. But after being selected to train with the best-of-the-best at the pilot academy, she figures she can leave behind those gawky, misfit days of teenage angst that made life so complicated before! But for Theo, life is about to get even MORE complicated – and deadlier still. For even though she’s survived the Academy and become one of the best pilots in the galaxy, the past is about to blast her with gale-force winds. Theo can run, but she can’t hide. Her destiny as master pilot and leader of a powerful Liaden clan calls, and there are lots of enemies who will try to make sure she’s quite dead before she has the chance to make an answer.”

Dragon Ship

Unabridged Length: 13 hrs

“First Class Courier Pilot Theo Waitley was already known as a nexus of violence – and then she inherited the precarious captaincy of a mysterious self-aware ship designed to serve a long dead trader. Now she has a trade route to run for Clan Korval while she convinces the near-mythic ghost ship Bechimo – and herself – that she wants to commit herself as the human side to their immensely powerful symbiosis. While her former lover battles a nanovirus that’s eating him alive, she’s challenged to rescue hundreds of stranded pilots and crewmen from an explosive situation in near orbit around a suddenly hostile planet. Lovers, enemies, an ex-roomie, and a jealous spaceship are all in peril as Theo wields power that no one in the universe is sure of – especially her.”

My Thoughts:

I read Fledgling and Saltation in their original serialized format and being able to listen to the story unfold in a more continuous manner worked better for me. I was able to mentally create a tighter weave for the plot threads and noticed links I hadn’t before. The character arc for Theo is natural and enjoyable to see progress. Fledgling has something of a YA feel to it as Theo begins to reach physical maturity and we see her navigate friendships and school. I felt a distinct sense of discomfort at the social/cultural construction of the world of Delgado. The concept of a “Safe World” with its minders and monitors and the encouragement to medicate for those outside the norm was disconcerting in all its kindly possibility. The academic positioning and intrigue, rather than being a distraction or taking away from Theo’s story, was organic and equally intriguing and led nicely into the next phase in Theo’s story.

In Saltation, the changes in Theo are more evident. The skill she almost takes for granted is jealously eyed by many of her classmates. Her intense focus on what she wants to accomplish is to the detriment of her social connections and as a listener, I can’t say that it endeared her to me but in part, that was due to not liking in others what we dislike in ourselves. What played nicely against anything I interpreted as a negative in Theo’s personality was her positioning as a “nexus of violence.” In essence, the fact that she became a scapegoat for what I’m going to call ethnocentrism (although I fear that’s not quite correct) on the world of Eylot made her much more sympathetic.

I was particularly fond of the intertwined stories in Ghost Ship and Dragon Ship. As Theo takes on piloting duties, first as a courier and then as the pilot of her own ship, she begins to learn about the life her father led long ago. She also has to figure out what her place is and what it means to be under Korval’s wing. The main story line, while not necessarily episodic, does find Theo moving from world to world and encountering a new set of conflicts at each one. Two threads tie it all together nicely: the role played by the Department of the Interior in her troubles and the progression of her relationship with the sentient ship Bechimo. Add in the uncertainty of  the survival of her friend and lover Win Ton and you have a highly enjoyable space adventure.

The Narration:

Eileen Stevens’ narration is difficult for me to grade. When I try to consider it objectively the voice differentiation is excellent, the characters and narrative are delivered in such a way as to allow the listener to discover the story unfolding with each line, the emotions conveyed are believable, and several of the character voices have an incredible natural feel/sound to them.

Two aspects of the delivery bothered me: if several of the voices were “incredibly natural”, why weren’t they all? In addition, the tonal variations – especially in narrative portions – didn’t have the range I expected. Although in no way monotone, the range seemed narrowed in the way that it would be if you were to lean over to a companion in a movie theater to murmur something in their ear, trying not use too much emphasis when speaking at such close range. Part of that is, I believe, Ms. Stevens’ natural voice tone which is why it’s so prevalent during the narrative portions. The other part of it is probably due to the method used for many of the male voices. The mechanical method used to generate a lower pitch makes the voices sound husky but not fully supported.

I don’t consider those to be insignificant issues so I was a bit surprised that the narration worked for me overall. In fact, as I kicked off a re-listen of Saltation in order to begin to pin down the specifics of my complaints about the narration, I found myself listening to the entire book again – not a sign that any perceived flaws in the narration should be considered deal-breakers. Although I suggest listening to a sample of the narration first if you are unfamiliar with the narrator, on the whole it worked for me and if another book in the Theo Waitley sequence is released with the same narrator I’ll buy it.

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.