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.

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

Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep

Widow’s Web by Jennifer EstepWidow's Web by Jennifer Estep
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Series: Elemental Assassin #7
Published by Audible Frontiers on 8/21/12
Genres: Fantasy
three-half-stars

Story: B
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

This enjoyable continuation of the Elemental Assassin series again finds Gin battling not just for her life and the safety of those she loves, but also to hold on to what she has built with her lover Owen after his old-flame returns to town. Narrator Lauren Fortgang knows her characters and delivers her smoothest narration to date.

The Plot:

Life is never dull for Gin Blanco, the former assassin known as the Spider. With the leadership of the criminal underworld of Ashland still in flux after the death of Mab Monroe, every contender for the top spot has their eye on taking out the Spider to prove their chops and Gin is getting tired of it. At least she has the support of her lover, Owen Grayson, to rely on. Except… Owen’s ex-flame, Salina Dubois, has moved back to town and not only does she have her sights set on picking up where she left off with Owen but she has even bigger plans that will shake not just the foundation of Ashland’s underworld, but everything Gin has come to hold dear.

My Thoughts:

I really like the Elemental Assassin series and this one is probably my second favorite in the continuum of Gin’s story. These books are solid entertainment. Those familiar with the series know there’s a pretty consistent premise: a powerful “big bad” who has Gin on the ropes in their first major encounter but who ultimately falls to her determination, the silverstone knives hidden up her sleeves, and the elemental power combo that always seems to surprise her with its strength. Throw in some type of relationship conflict between Gin and her love interest and there’s a pretty good mix of action and emotion.

The similes and descriptions are all standard fare and the world is drawn in broad strokes but the writing is solid, the elemental universe still feels fresh within the Urban Fantasy genre, and the simple fact of the matter is that what works so very well for me in this series is this: I just really like Gin. She’s a good combination of tough and vulnerable and is easy to sympathize with. She’s blunt, she swears, she’s a heck of a cook, and she’s had an interesting arc of emotional growth.

The repetitious elements as new readers are introduced to Gin and her world that have been niggling irritations for me in previous books were far less apparent in this one. The action scenes are well-written and as Gin struggled to balance what she thought was the right course of action with what Owen and his sister were asking of her, I empathized with her internal conflict. There was a lot of back-story to fill in the gaps in Owen’s past and Phillip Kincaid, leader of Ashland’s gambling operations, played a key role. I enjoyed his presence and the game of “is he a good guy or isn’t he?” The familiar characters from the series all made an appearance but I enjoyed the tighter focus on Gin, Owen, and Eva with a large dose of “Philly” and Salina. An enjoyable entry in the series.

The Narration:

Lauren Fortgang really has a handle on both the characters and the world that the author has built and her delivery has smoothed out since the first book. The voice she gives Salina nicely communicates “evil seductress” and raised the hair at the nape of my neck a time or two and the amused sarcasm in Gin’s voice each time she said “Philly” made me smile whenever she said it. Excellent dialogue, very distinct voices for each character, and just the right flair in performing these larger-than-life characters without pushing it into the realm of comic makes this a series I will follow in audio for some time to come.

three-half-stars