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+.

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.