Yesterday, an e-book I’ve been waiting on for some time finally became available—so I grabbed it and promptly inhaled it. The book in question is the latest installment in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s long-running Liaden series, Alliance of Equals. It was absolutely worth the wait.
The book actually won’t be available until July, 2016, which means the Baen e-book bundle containing it won’t go on sale until April. However, the EARC unproofed advance copy was released yesterday—and despite feeling e-books should be priced below $10 in general, the Liaden novels are among the very few I’ll buy as a $15 EARC every time. I’m just too impatient, and happy to pay that premium.
So how was it? From the standpoint of a long-running Liaden fan, it was excellent—and, indeed, a book that some fans have been waiting to read for quite some time. As a jumping-on point for new fans, it’s probably not the best starting point—but that’s going to be the case for most late novels in a series that’s run as long as the Liaden Universe has.
By this point, the Liaden Universe has gotten quite expansive, with dozens of characters and nearly as many ongoing plot arcs. There are only so many plot arcs Lee and Miller can address at a time, which means each new book in the series tends to jump around a little, and sometimes it can be a while before your favorite character gets to spend time in the limelight.
Fans who’ve been wanting to read more about the adventures of Theo Waitley, protagonist of Fledgling, Saltation, Ghost Ship, and Dragon Ship, will have to keep waiting a little longer. Theoretically (“Theo-retically”?), if I’m not mistaken, she should appear again in the next Liaden book. But those who’ve been craving more adventures of Shan yos’Galan and Priscilla Mendoza have finally gotten what they wanted—this book represents the most concentrated screen time the A Conflict of Honors duo has gotten since the original five-book cycle ended with I Dare.
Alliance of Equals isn’t so much a complete novel in and of itself as it is a continuation of three ongoing but unconnected plot arcs. The main plot interwoven through the book is Shan and Priscilla’s search for new trading partners aboard their ship the Dutiful Passage, and the coming-of-age of Shan’s daughter and trading apprentice Padi. The secondary arc continues an arc from Dragon in Exile, involving AI mentor Tolly Jones, pilot and AI Tocohl Lorlin, and ex-Yxtrang Hazenthull Explorer’s mission to socialize an AI inadvertently created by Theo Waitley and Bechimo in Dragon Ship. The tertiary arc follows Daav yos’Phelium and his lifemate Aelliana Caylon as they recover from near-fatal injuries sustained during Dragon Ship, aboard the ship of the mysterious Uncle and his companion Dulsey.
It is an artifact of the way this long-running series is written that only one of those arcs reaches a real resolution over the course of the book—or possibly two, depending on what you consider resolution. One of them effectively ends on a cliffhanger, and another reaches an endpoint but still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But that’s to be expected—some plots take longer to resolve than others, and there’s only so much you can fit into one book.
It also has partly to do with the way the first few Liaden novels published by Baen centered on Theo Waitley, simply because she was the protagonist of the first new Liaden novels Baen picked up, so Baen asked for more stories featuring her—until Lee and Miller finally reached the point where they’d told all of her story they could until the rest of the universe had caught up.
That’s effectively what Alliance of Equals is—a catch-up book. I don’t mean that in any pejorative or dismissive sense—these plot arcs do all need to be caught up so that all segments of the story as a whole are on equal footing, and they are all interesting and compelling stories to those who’ve been following along in the setting. But the stories never intersect, nor do they truly parallel each other, so new readers might puzzle at the way three seemingly-unrelated adventures are interspersed scene by scene as if someone shuffled three decks of cards together.
However, as one of the characters themselves might say, necessity exists. Given the novel-driven nature of our current publishing market, publishing the book as three independent novellas simply wouldn’t work. Novellas and short stories work great for prequels, side plots, and unrelated characters, but the main story arc has to be told via novels, because some readers simply won’t read non-novel works—so sometimes you get a novel that’s effectively three novellas shuffled together.
This is why I say it’s not the best jumping-on point for readers new to the Liaden universe. It’s firmly a middle-of-the-story book, and for all that Lee and Miller do their best to insert some catch-up exposition so new readers have some idea what’s going on, there’s only so much you can do when you’re this far into an ongoing story. If you’re looking for a good starting point, Sharon Lee has some suggestions here. The Baen Free Library has two Liaden e-books available for free—Agent of Change and Fledgling—and they’re both great places to start.
But as I said earlier, those of us who have been following the series for a long time have been waiting quite a while to read another book focusing on Shan and Priscilla—though the focus of their plot is more accurately Padi, whose dramliza wizard powers’ manifestation is complicated by some emotional issues she’s been having. We’ve also been waiting for several books to find out the outcome of The Uncle’s rescue of Daav—and how it would affect Daav and Aelliana’s relationship. The AI plot is intriguing, too—the nature of AI has been a fascinating theme of the Liaden series for some time. Also Hazenthull has been an interesting character ever since she was introduced in the original books, and she’s finally starting to come into her own.
If you’re a long-time Liaden fan, you probably won’t find $15 for the EARC to be a waste of money. (Also, you can help Sharon Lee win the bet she has going with one of their cats.) If you’re new to the series, I highly recommend starting with one of the earlier books and working your way forward—Alliance of Equals will be for sale at regular price by the time you’ve finished the 18 novels and myriad short stories that came before.
Meanwhile…I’m already looking forward to the next one. Now that they’ve got the stage set, I can’t wait to revisit other favorite characters again.