Trade Secret, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, is the latest novel set in their long-running Liaden Universe, after 2012’s entertaining but problematic Necessity’s Child.
Trade Secret, fortunately, fails to contain awkward “space gypsies.” Instead, it makes a return to the history of the Liadenverse: as a direct (and long-awaited) sequel to 2004’s Balance of Trade, it takes place in an era when Terran-Liaden interstellar trade and relations are much more rough-and-ready; when the status quo has not yet attainted the modicum of stability it possesses at the start of the Agent of Change sequence.
We return to Jethri Gobelyn van’Deelin, a Terran apprentice trader recently adopted into the Liaden Clan Ixin. Jethri has returned to the tradeship Elthoria after his time spent learning Liaden ways on the planet Irikwae, and settled into a position as a junior trader. But he still has a great deal of learning to do: learning about his roles, about himself, and about his family. But when the Scout ter’Astin arrives with word that some property, which Jethri had entrusted to the Liaden Scouts for study, has been misappropriated by elements within the Scouts, Jethri must leave Elthoria and accompany ter’Astin on a mission of Balance—Liaden honour.
On the Gobelyn tradeship, family matters (and arguments) are complicated by the politics of dealing along trade routes where competition with Liadens is growing increasingly strong. Terrans must organise intelligently to survive and keep competing. Traders of goodwill on both sides of the Terran-Liaden must organise and proceed intelligently to stave off interstellar conflict. Both the Gobelyn crew and Jethri are bound up in the consequences of some long-ago planning and politicking done by Jethri’s father, Arin Gobelyn. In addition, as a result of the events of Balance of Trade, the heir to the Liaden Clan Rinork bears Jethri and both his Gobelyn and Ixin kin a grudge. His plans don’t entirely align with those of his mother, the leader of Clan Rinork, who has her own schemes to ensure that Liadens dominate the trade routes—and in the end, Rinork’s heir will force a confrontation on Jethri and his people. For eventually it transpires that Jethri’s missing property and the politics and conspiracies of the present are connected through the matter of Jethri’s father.
Lee and Miller’s novels are sometimes termed a “science fiction of manners.” Trade Secret, like many of their other Liaden books, shows a strong interest in the interaction between Terran and Liaden cultures; the people who build (or embody) bridges between societies; and the conflict that coalesces around them. The interest in manners and mores, and in interpersonal interactions, at times leads to a pace that can seem sluggish and a progression of events that on occasion seems lopsided. For example: early on in the novel is a lengthy sequence leading up to Jethri’s first sexual experience, at the hands of a friend who takes on the role of “body mentor”—a role which Liaden society acknowledges and in part formalises. But this friend is only a dim presence in the rest of the story, and the role played by Jethri’s recent sexual initiation/newfound sexual maturity is almost nil.
On the other hand, this slow unfolding of cultural mores and interactions leaves plenty of time for characterisation, concerning which Lee and Miller have no small amount of flair and skill. Forward progress takes place leisurely, right up until the final urgency of the climax; for the most part, the characters of this novel are people of words rather than action.
There is much here to amuse and entertain fans of the series—from Jethri’s connection to the mysterious Uncle and a duel by the Liaden Code—but I find myself plagued by the sensation that Trade Secret doesn’t hold its shape very well, certainly not compared to earlier instalments in the Liaden universe. It lacks something of the drive and spark of Agent of Change or Scout’s Progress, or even I Dare.
In short, it’s a perfectly entertaining Liaden novel, but it’ll never be one of my favourites.
Trade Secret is available now from Baen Press