Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Space Regency Sequence

Local Custom, Scout's Progress, Mouse and Dragon by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Romance, Science Fiction

Welcome to the second post about the Liaden Universe audiobooks as produced by Audible Frontiers (the publisher being particularly relevant because I also have a copy of the Buzzy Multimedia version of Local Custom). This one covers the Space Regency sequence. I don’t know who devised that name but it’s perfect for the set of books that includes Local Custom, Scout’s Progress, and Mouse and Dragon. Fair warning for anyone keeping track: if you thought I had a crush on Conflict of Honors from the Agent of Change sequence, it can’t hold a candle to how I feel about Scout’s Progress. Don’t worry, though, that’ll be my last squeal-y fan-girl moment.

The Story Line(s):

Warning: it’s distinctly possible there will be spoilers in the following plot summaries and review. I do my best to avoid disclosing anything that would ruin your enjoyment of the books if you know it ahead of time but of course, my judgment on that might not match how you experience books.

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 31 mins

Local Custom

Liaden and Master Trader Er Thom yos’Galen knows he must marry. His family (Clan Korval) has become a bit thin on the ground and if they are ever to increase their numbers to a sustainable level, ever clan member must do his or her part to provide an heir. The problem is that he just can’t stop thinking about Terran scholar of comparative linguistics Anne Davis with whom he had a brief affair. When he makes a trip off-world to see Anne one more time in the hopes he can finally put her from his mind, he discovers the bond between them isn’t going to be easily put aside.

Anne is delighted to see Er Thom but there’s just one problem: when he left, she did some things in accordance with her customs that are in direct opposition to how things are done on Liad. Above all things, Liaden honor and custom must be satisfied so after being offered an opportunity to complete the life’s-work of a Liaden scholar she had been corresponding with, Anne accompanies Er Thom to Liad for a meeting with his delm. On a world with little respect for Terrans, Anne and Er Thom must battle both family and custom to win through to love and even life.

Scout’s Progress

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 13 mins

Clan Mizel’s middle daughter, Aellianna Caylon, is a brilliant scholar of mathematics. As the reviser of a set of math tables used in building piloting equations, she’s honored and admired by the Liaden Scouts (think Exploratory Corps) that she teaches. At home, however, she is far from honored by her clan. Her older brother delights in tormenting her and she’s survived by keeping her head down and keeping quiet. When an unexpected turn of luck makes her the owner of a spaceship, the clock begins ticking on her race to win her freedom.

Daav yos’Phelium is contracted to wed but that decision rests uneasily with him. Seeking distraction by performing casual labor at the Binjali repair yard, he encounters Aelliana Caylon. Acting as a piloting instructor for the skittish math instructor is second-nature for the ex-Scout and head of Clan Korval – after all, the clan values pilots and ships above all else – but with every lift where he stands as co-pilot to her, the bond between them grows. When Aelliana’s brother learns she owns a spaceship, he plans to take it from her…at any cost. Will Daav lose her when she takes to space and a new life or can they fashion a solving between them?

Unabridged Length: 12 hrs 27 mins

Mouse and Dragon

I’m going to have to grab the blurb on this one from Goodreads. If you plan on reading Scout’s Progress, may I suggest skipping any and all plot summaries of Mouse and DragonView Spoiler »

My Thoughts:

I listened to a set of interviews of the narrators chosen for the Liaden Universe audiobooks and in the post’s introduction to the interview with Bernadette Dunne, the author wrote “…that Local Custom and Scout’s Progress were written as tributes to Heyer…” For a long time I’ve described these books as “if Jane Austen wrote sci-fi” but I’m going to have to amend that to “if Georgette Heyer wrote sci-fi” because I think that’s a better stylistic match. I don’t think I can quite call it a comedy of manners but with this series I particularly enjoy the subtle formality of the phrasing used to represent the use of the various modes of high and low Liaden tongue. It’s deeply amusing when it is employed (as it often is) in pursuit of dry humor. In fact, I find the writing style/phrasing in these books so immersive that for days after finishing one of the books, my own communication style – from e-mails to conversation – takes on a more formal tone and subtle humor.

The structure of Liaden society, while not quite defined as class-based, has a primarily closed social group comprised of the clans. The clans are further broken out into high, middle, and low houses who engage in activities reminiscent of what you might find in an historical romance: social occasions I’d liken to a ball, from which one might find themselves stricken from the invitation list; social slights and snubs; devastating verbal put-downs – usually in the aristocratic (my term) High Tongue – for social gaffes; arranging contract marriages in an attempt to increase the financial standing of a poorer clan; and more. Although I enjoy the romantic elements in this sequence, there’s certainly more to it than that.

Even the name given to the overall Liaden Universe series implies some in-depth world-building but although the world is fully defined and complex, its place in the story is how it defines and informs the characters rather than existing as a construct that distracts the reader with all its flashiness and unique devising. That’s part of why the fact that these stories are science fiction shouldn’t dissuade a reader leery of that genre from picking them up – especially the first two books. By the same token, if you enjoy spec-fic and are taken aback by the “Regency” part of the sequence name, don’t let it scare you away. Simply put, these books tell stories – those of Er Thom and Anne and of Daav and Aelliana – and if the slice of time we get to see in the lives of, say, Daav and Aelliana happens to contain a smoothly woven blend of math, space ships, games of custom and manners, daring flights of rescue to off-world ports, family conflict, social strictures, life-threatening events and love… well, real life can be just as full and complex can’t it? That’s why I enjoy these books so much: they contain multi-dimensional characters who could be real…somewhere.

Coming as it did after my original reading of the Agent of Change sequence, Local Custom was a welcome glimpse into half of the family from which Val Con and Shan originated. Er Thom and Anne Davis, however, quickly took their own place in my affections. Watching these two navigate their relationship through the filter of their own “local custom” (and the misunderstandings caused by that) was enjoyable. Although clan members of either gender have contract marriages arranged for them, the fact that it’s the man who struggles with plans for an arranged marriage is a nice bit of turn-about to what I’m accustomed to in historical romance. The way in which family – both as supportive of the protagonists and as a point of conflict and opposition – is tied into the weave of this story is particularly appealing to me.

In the Agent of Change review post, I mentioned Miller/Lee as my “desert island” authors. Should the need for my services pounding coconut husks into paper pulp never materialize, the next best scenario is to be stranded with is my copy of Scout’s Progress. Just to be clear… Favorite. Book. Ever.

As much as I’d like to say “talk trash about this book and I’m up for a throw-down with you,” I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to readers with certain character preferences. With the current trend in spec-fic being for kick-ass heroines, Aelliana Caylon might be a challenging figure if that’s your bent. Self-described as “craven,” she begins the story as a sympathetic but far from strong character. What this story does have that offsets that is the best character development arc I’ve encountered. Returning to my comment on how fully developed the author’s characters are, Aelliana is a completely human mix of characteristics. Her social and physical tentativeness is in contrast with her unquestioning belief in her intelligence and skill with math. While she may start at a low point in self-confidence and strength of will, the ways in which she gradually changes in response to events in the story is realistic (no sudden plot gift that allows her to do a 180° character flip – she has to work for everything) and by the end of the tale, it’s clear that the heroine can (and even must) rescue herself.

As for my thoughts on Mouse and Dragon … this book is excellent but it both makes me the romantic in me happy and breaks my heart. I wouldn’t want to change anything about it but…. I’ll let you discover this one for yourself.

The Narration:

(Not so much the narration itself as a comment on what I learned from the audio version: apparently I’ve been (mentally) pronouncing half the proper nouns in the Liaden Universe accented entirely different than the authors’ presumed intent.)

I’ve listened to several audiobooks narrated by Bernadette Dunne and she is, without a doubt, an extremely talented narrator. Even when I wasn’t immediately sold on her casting as the narrator of a particular book (because the tenor of her voice doesn’t immediately make me think “young protagonist” or some such thought) I wouldn’t get very far into the story before becoming immersed in it and forgetting about my unnecessary casting concerns.

As a text reader, I almost never build such a strong image of a character that switching to an audiobook version throws me because the narrator’s interpretation doesn’t match the one my internal reader has developed. A few of the books in this series turned out to be the reason that last sentence included “almost” before “never” because I have such a familiarity with many of the Liaden Universe books (I may have actually spoken several lines in sync with the narrator) that it seems I did develop a pretty rigid preconception on one point: I mentally hear the cadence of the more formal Liaden-style phrasing (especially that containing humorous undertones) differently than the narrators of this series (up until Kevin T. Collins’ delivery in the Books of Before sequence; apparently he hears it the same way I do.) I find that to be my one hang-up with the narration of this sequence but that turned out to be a small issue because whatever my initial expectations, it’s the consummate skill of a narrator like Bernadette Dunne that reminds me that an actor who can convey the story in such a way that

  • The events in the book have an immediacy because the narrator speaks her lines as if she was each individual character and those characters are discovering the events of their lives at the very moment they occur
  • The intonations and inflections used are the natural product of a varied cast of characters who experience a wide range of feelings and are not used to artificially modulate words in an attempt to convey an emotion the narrator isn’t feeling
  • The basics of voice delivery – clearly differentiated characters, easily determining male from female voices regardless of contextual clues, age-appropriate voices – are all present
  • The narrative sections are given just enough emotion that they enhance the dialogue and never come across as a character in their own right
  • Scenes with dialogue have a natural flow because each line is responsive to the previous one

will almost always blow my pre-conceived notions out of the water and let me sink into the story.

In addition to the above narration aspects, one particular area where Ms. Dunne handily exceeded my inner reader was in her ability to work with the punctuation. Scout’s Progress makes liberal use of dashes to indicate Aelliana’s hesitance in expressing herself and my internal reader invariably stumbles over that profusion. Not so, the narrator of the audiobooks.

In the final analysis, if you’re coming to this audiobook with no preconceptions, you should be nothing but pleased. If you have a delivery expectation built on how your internal reader performs, you may be initially uncertain but should soon be sucked under with an immersive performance. In fact, I kicked off a second listen to Scout’s Progress and heard a nuance in delivery that I missed the first time because my internal reader had finally shed her rigid expectations.

Rating:

This sequence earns an unreserved (and uncommon) A grade from me for the books while the narration is a B+.

Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Series: The Agent of Change Sequence

Agent of Change, Conflict of Honors, Carpe Diem, Plan B, I Dare by Sharon Lee, Steve Miller
Narrator: Andy Caploe
Published by Audible Frontiers Genres: Romance, Science Fiction

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.

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 57 mins

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.

Unabridged Length: 11 hrs 59 mins

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.

Unabridged Length: 14 hrs 34 mins

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.

Unabridged Length: 14 hrs 2 mins

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.

Unabridged Length: 20 hrs 56 mins

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….

The Narration:

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

Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro

Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy CastroEmissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro
Narrator: Kathe Mazur
Series: Andrea Cort #1
Published by Audible Frontiers on 5/15/12
Genres: Science Fiction
three-stars

Story: B-
Narration: B-

The Plot:

As an eight-year-old living on the alien world of Bocai, Andrea Cort was caught up in an inexplicable night of blood-lust and murder. Remanded to the custody of the Diplomatic Corps from that point on, she has traded a life of service to the Corps for safety from prosecution by those who view her actions on Bocai as unforgivable – as Andrea herself does. Now Associate Legal Counsel for the Homo Sapiens Confederacy Diplomatic Corps Judge Advocate, Andrea finds herself assigned to a murder investigation on the fabricated cylinder world of One One One. Created by an artificial intelligence known as the AIsource, One One One is also home to an engineered sentient species developed by the AIsource: the Brachiators. Extremely slow moving primates, the Brachiators spend their lives navigating the vine entangled hub of One One One which, while covered with vegetation, is essentially the “sky” since the pull of gravity is toward the outside of the rotating cylinder – an area of roiling poisonous atmosphere.

Andrea is charged with tracking down the killer…as long as the AIsource isn’t implicated by her investigation. She has a large suspect pool to choose from in the Dip Corps contingent observing the Brachiators while living in a community built of huge hammocks suspended from the Uppergrowth. Complicating the investigation is not just Andrea’s uncertainty about who she can trust on One One One – starting with Ambassador Stuart Gibb; the minder he’s assigned to her, Peyrin Lastogne; and the intriguing one-entity-in-two-bodies Porrinyards – but the occurrence of a second murder, multiple attempts on her life, and the ongoing battle with her own inner demons.

My Thoughts:

This book was a surprisingly seamless blend of sci-fi and mystery and it worked pretty well for me on both fronts. Although it took me an uncommonly long time to get the layout and construction of One One One fixed in my head, on the whole the world-building was well-developed without devolving into needlessly complex detail. The omnipotent AIsource may not strike even the casual sci-fi reader as refreshingly unique (and unfortunately, based on the descriptions I kept picturing them as floating LCD screens) but they were well integrated into the plot and provided a few surprising moments.

The Confederacy is an interesting political animal with far flung member worlds that are, as often as not, basically owned by corporations who have made the inhabitants debt slaves. The Diplomatic Corps offers an alternative to that life but is its own brand of indentured servitude. This sets up fertile ground for conflict not only within the context of this book but I also anticipate it expanding nicely into the rest of the series. I was slightly discontented by how one of the plot threads relating to the murder investigation wrapped up – both in how exposition-heavy the conclusion was and in the whodunit part – but the entire mystery story line was unexpectedly (and pleasingly) multi-layered.

In many ways, Andrea displays the characteristics of an antihero. She’s blunt, often rude, and wholly misanthropic. She’s lacking in ideals other than completing the task assigned to her where she’s not so much pursuing justice as puzzle-solving while giving herself a reason to tune out the inner voice that tells her to stop trying and give up on life. She’s unsuited to an investigation based in “Hammocktown” since she has an aversion to heights and unlike many of the other Dip Corp indentures on One One One, she’s not genetically enhanced.

Adam-Troy Castro did a nice job balancing Andrea’s unlikeable characteristics with understandable motivations for why she acts the way she does. She also has a subtle character arc that I look forward to seeing reach apex over the course of the series. This combination enabled me to maintain interest in what could have been an unlikeable character until the changes that began to take place in her in response to events on One One One started to humanize her a bit. I found the dynamics between her and the Porrinyards particularly engaging.

The Narration:

For the most part, I enjoyed the narration by Kathe Mazur and will continue with the series in audio. She seemed to actively inhabit the character of Andrea Cort and handled the voicing of the AI entity and the somewhat alien Brachiators well. Much of the first person narrative delivery is in an almost confidential in tone, as if I was standing nearby and Andrea were half-whispering her thoughts. I struggled with that in some respects because I interpret that delivery as indicative of strong narrative tension but here it seemed more of a presentation style chosen for a first person narration and I was unable to maintain a sustained engagement with that much perceived tension. It also had the effect of then partially blunting the moments of real tension that the story provided. Andrea Cort is a very tightly wound character with a significant amount of emotional baggage and my read of her character is that because she feels she has nothing to lose, she tends to be blunt and forceful in expressing herself. Where I found the narration to be ideal was in balancing Andrea’s unlikeable aspects (her brusque speech patterns and disregard for anyone’s feelings) with just enough emotional vulnerability tinging her thoughts to keep me from disconnecting from her character. In addition, the supporting cast of characters were nicely distinct in both vocal presentation and viewpoint.

three-stars

Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi

Under the Never Sky by Veronica RossiUnder the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Series: Under the Never Sky #1
Published by Harper Audio on 1/3/12
Genres: Post Apocalyptic, Science Fiction, Young Adult

Story: B
Narration: A-

The Setting (macro):

A post-apocalyptic earth where, beginning roughly three hundred years ago, Aether storms spent six decades funneling down to the ground in a destructive fury: setting fire to the earth, causing gene mutation, and helping new diseases evolve and thrive.

The Setting (micro):

On one end of the spectrum is a society of pod dwellers who escaped from the Aether by building sealed compounds and creating a virtual reality (called the Realms) to remind them of what they left behind. On the other end are Outsiders who roam the surface and survive primarily in tribes, their survival aided by new abilities that occasionally manifest in some people at a young age. These people (called Scires) have abilities such as super-hearing or sight, the ability to scent other people’s “temper” (emotions,) and the ability to “render” (mystically bond but not in a fated mates kind of way) with others due to Aether-caused mutation.

The Main Characters:

Aria lives in the pod named Reverie. Her mother has been out of contact for a week after she went to another pod to gather information for her medical research. When Soran, the son of the Director of Security for Reverie, suggests a group of friends unplug from the Realms and take an illicit trip into one of the agriculture domes that supports the sealed pod, Aria jumps at the chance to get on Soran’s good side. She hopes to convince him to ask his father to find out what happened to her mother. Unfortunately, Soren’s deranged desire to experience ‘the real’ has deadly consequences for everyone but him and Aria.

Peregrine is an Outsider, usually referred to as “Savages” by those who live in the pods. His brother is Blood Lord of their tribe and Perry is dissatisfied with his leadership and wishes he could challenge him for rule. Holding him back is his love for his nephew, Talon, with whom he has rendered. When he tries to sneak into Reverie in search of something to help heal the seriously ill boy, he is unable to stop himself from coming to Aria’s rescue, even though she is a Dweller, before making his escape.

In a bid to protect his son from Aria’s testimony, Reverie’s Director of Security drops Aria in the middle of the Outside to die. On their way back to the pod, the guards who dumped Aria off encounter Perry and Talon out for a hunt and kidnap Talon. As he sets off to rescue his nephew, Perry crosses paths with Aria and the two form an uneasy alliance in order to retrieve Talon and discover what happened to Aria’s mother.

My Thoughts:

Told in chapters that alternate points of view between Aria and Perry, this post-apocalyptic story has a strong sci-fi vibe and held my interest completely. It was a good story with excellent narration and I look forward to the next in the series. With a bang-up couple of opening chapters that are reminiscent of a futuristic version of Lord of the Flies, the author’s ability to create and maintain narrative tension is established. The world Ms. Rossi has created is atmospheric and well thought-out and isn’t so much delivered in descriptive sentence bunches as it is defined by the way the characters interact with it.

I imagine the author’s method of world-building may not suit every reader. Some books take you by the hand and gently skip down the world-building path with you, happily pointing out every scenic spot along the way and that’s OK; some great stories are told that way. Some books put a boot in your backside and kick you right into the middle of a lake, to sink or swim on your own. Although I think some readers may feel like they are drowning, I found the way the world was created and described to be a strong frame around which I could wrap some of my own conclusions. I enjoyed the sense of discovery along with the characters and the intimation that there was a lot more to be explored in the world Aria and Perry lived in. If your reading tastes lean towards a world that is clearly and fully defined upfront, you may find this book frustrating. I was comfortable learning bits and pieces as the story progressed. For example, I enjoyed taking the author’s descriptions of Aether (such as “The flows ran above the clouds. They were beautiful, like lightning trapped in liquid currents, thin as veils in some places. In others, they gathered in thick bright streams.”) and combining it with the tornado like strikes of destructive Aether storms and creating a post-apocalyptic world in my head where I imagined the earth was affected by unusual solar activity to such an extent that the atmosphere itself was changed, making life in enclosed habitats preferable for those who could afford it and leaving those who remained in the open to be changed on a genetic level. That wasn’t spelled out and I could certainly be over-thinking it but I enjoyed piling my own creativity on top of the author’s in this instance.

Ms. Rossi does an excellent job defining her characters, even in short sentences. When she speaks of Soren and “The way he watched people when they laughed, like he didn’t understand laughter.” She builds an instant character sketch that is then amply backed up by his creepy actions. There is a familiar pattern here that I see in many novels featuring YA characters, where the female protagonist is sheltered/less competent/needs protection and the male protagonist is the immediately accomplished one. While she was initially a somewhat frustrating character for me because she was so sheltered, this was offset by Aria’s mental strength and her refusal to complain as she toughened up as well as the fact that Perry and Aria are understandably at odds for half the book. I enjoyed watching Aria travel a great character arc from sheltered to independent. Also enjoyable was the romance between Aria and Perry, which was very sweet. While it didn’t blow my socks off, I left the story with a sense of deep satisfaction at the density of the tale.

The Narration:

This audiobook put me in mind of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and while I could make a strong case for some similar story elements, it’s equally valid to suspect that I made the comparison because they both employ the same skilled narrator: Bernadette Dunne Flagler. I feel like I repeat the same comments when a narrator does a really great job but while I go off to think up some crazy new and unique ways to describe a skilled narration, have some of the same ol’ same ol’… Ms. Dunne has a distinctive voice so it’s worth listening to a sample if you are unfamiliar with her work but she delivers the kind of narration that transcends her own voice and transmutes it into the individual characters in the story. The cast is distinctively voiced, the emotions feel real, and the pacing is perfect.

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa MeyerCinder by Marissa Meyer
Narrator: Rebecca Soler
Series: The Lunar Chronicles #1
Published by Macmillan Audio on 1/3/12
Genres: Science Fiction

Book description (via Goodreads):

“Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.”

My thoughts:

True confession: I’m not a fan of the Cinderella fairy tale but with this book, the story of Cinderella is just a launching pad for a terrific YA sci-fi tale. A theme of injustice that turns to triumph is clearly the basic framework for this series but the author has created an inventive riff on the old folktale and she takes it and runs with it, often in unexpected directions – not the least of which is “Cinderella” as cyborg. From Lunar people who possess magic to portions of the story from the Prince’s point-of-view to a virulent plague that affects both Cinder and Prince Kai’s families, there are new elements mixed in with the familiar that keep the book moving at a steady pace.

Can I spot aspects of the story that some readers might find bothersome? Yes. The listener is dropped into the middle of the world without a lot of explanation about how it came to be and that aspect isn’t developed as the story goes along. The political structure is suitably defined and a pretty strong sense of place is present in terms of the physical surroundings but the cultural component/flavor (this is New Beijing, after all) is surprisingly absent. Other than knowing they exist and meeting their deliciously evil Queen, we learn nothing about how the Lunar people came to live on the moon and there is very little information about their society other than that there are those who possess glamours and those who are reviled and killed for not having them. In addition, the revelations near the end will come as a surprise to no one. Since this book is labeled as the 1st in the Lunar Chronicles, it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are a lot of unresolved plot lines at the end of the book. Not a cliff-hanger according to my definition but it certainly left me wanting more information (or the next book). None of these aspects particularly bothered me because the story moved at a nice clip and I was immediately invested in the characters but they are worth acknowledging.

The story succeeded on multiple fronts for me. Creativity is a big one but in addition, Cinder is a very relateable and sympathetic character. I was a bit surprised at the level of outrage I felt at the prejudice towards her based on her cyborg parts (she’s only 36% mechanical for crying out loud and she thinks and feels, how does that make her sub-human!?) let alone the way she was treated as property by her “stepmother” so the social metaphors that could be built on that plot line were clearly effective on me. Cinder is a competent young woman and while I might have been wishing for her to find her happy ever after, I was content in the knowledge that if she didn’t get it, she’d be fine on her own.

The Narration:

This is probably more of a producer-related comment because my opinion of the narrator’s skill is wholly positive. I am at a complete loss as to why characters who dwell in New Beijing have American accents. I might have gone with an assumption of a homogenous future in terms of universal language or accents but at one point, Cinder wonders if the doctor’s accent was “European? American?” I’m discomfited at the idea that a production decision was made based on a belief that Americans won’t listen to audiobooks where the main character has an Asian/Chinese accent.

That aside, Rebecca Soler delivers very age-appropriate voices for the characters and her performance choices perfectly matched Cinder’s youth (she’s sixteen), which helped increased my indignation about her maltreatment. Whether it was a monotone robot, a silky and sly-voiced Lunar queen (that one raised my hackles), a chipper and plucky android, the noble yet down-to-earth prince, or the ambiguous figure of the royal doctor, I can’t imagine the characters being performed any other way. There were times, especially when her thoughts were sliding to the negative end of the scale, when Cinder’s inner dialogue was given a sense of vocal intimacy that was a superb delivery choice. Not only did it clearly delineate the lines as thoughts rather than speech, it also had an immediate emotional effect on me as the listener. The energy Ms. Soler brought to the story was perfect and I don’t have a single criticism about her performance.

This was good book with great narration and I enjoyed it quite a bit while still feeling it had more of a YA vibe than most of the books in that category that I’ve read.