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.