Nov 12 2013 6:00pm

A Return to the Liaden Universe: Trade Secret by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Trade Secret Liaden Universe Sharon Lee Steve Miller 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

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads things. Her blog. Her Twitter.

Pamela Adams
1. PamAdams
i just read Trade Secret myself, and, while I enjoyed it, I do agree with your issues on focus and pacing. This is a book that should have been more- perhaps a larger book or even a two or three book sub-series. The ending felt forced and rushed, although this may have been some of the retro-fitting dealing with Arin's book.

I did love the additional information on Liaden customs- particularly the 'don't touch the face' one. Also, it's interesting to see characters who aren't life-bonded, and how they deal with these temporary relationships. Up to now, the ones we've seen up closr have been unhappy. (Also, I liked that Jethri is open to a relationship with Vil Tor as well as with Gaenor.)
Shelly wb
2. shellywb
I too agree with this. I enjoyed parts of it because they added to my knowledge of the culture, but at times the infodumps got tedious. And, as you say, it lacked a certain focus and cohesion that other novels had. Plus those sparkly moments. Like Val Con meeting giant turtles in the lobby of a burning building. They do those kinds of scenes so well, and I missed having at least one here.
3. helbel
I'm part way through. Which considering I bought it last week is pretty terrible for me. Normally I'd finish a Liaden Universe book in one sitting.

Sad to say it's just not grabbing me.

I'm hoping it might improve on rereading (once I know where it's going and can focus on the details), but right now it's too bitty and I'm not loving the characters. Which is weird as I loved the original short story and the longer Balance of Trade.

Hate the sex/romance scenes, also not something I've found before with Miller/Lee's work. The scenes feel shoehorned in and don't seem to add anything to the story. Though yay for the nod towards diveristy at least.
Elizabeth Doolin
4. mochabean
Agree wholeheartedly. A nice read for Liaden fans, but not satisfying. Needs clutch turtles. Plus, I find Jethri desperately boring. He can't compete with the far more interesting characters out there in the Liaden universe (granted, Val Con and Miri and Theo and Shan and Pat Rin and Daav and Cantra and Nelirick Explorer and the list goes on are tough acts to follow), and there is never any doubt that he will competently deal with the challenges he faces. But good lord, could he at least tell a joke once in a while, or paint a landscape, or break out into spontaneous clogging? Something to make him more interesting? The sexual initiation scene was painfully awkward, possibly because too much time was spent describing clothing which conjured up images of late seventies sci-fi fashion (Logan's Run, anyone?). It also gets my vote for Worst Liaden Cover, unless you agree that Jethri is Vanilla Ice. I'll just sit over here re-reading I Dare and hoping we get back to Surebleak someday.
Kristoff Bergenholm
5. Magentawolf
@4 - Ow, you're so right about the cover. Balance of Trade was the very first Liaden novel that I read, and I've been waiting forever for a follow-up to that story. Sigh.
Chris Meadows
6. Robotech_Master
@4 - We should be getting back to the "main" storyline late next year. That's when the first of the five-book cycle that should tie up the main storyline is scheduled to come out. Sharon Lee posted some interesting insights into the series writing process on her blog. It can be tricky to try to force the creative brain into particular alleys. I've had similar experiences in some of the Internet fiction I write.

Anyway, I'm just happy to have Lee & Miller writing more books in that universe, period. Anyone remember the long dry spell when the publisher didn't want any more Liad after the first three books so they went off to Maine to rusticate? Or the fears that the series might end again after Meisha Merlin went kaput (taking much of the money owed its authors along with it)? I'll take so-so Liad over much of the dreck that populates shelves right now any day. :)
Elizabeth Doolin
7. mochabean
@6 Good points, all. Plus, I had the privilege of coming at the whole Liaden Universe late and backwards -- I started with Necessity's Child after seeing it mentioned here and reading that it could work as a stand alone. It did, but it made a lot more sense when I read it a second time after going through the rest of the "main" series. So I really haven't had to wait long, relatively speaking, and I like their stuff enough to be willing to put up with Jethri. And I found the second half of Trade Secret much better than the first half...
Chris Meadows
8. Robotech_Master
@7 The interesting thing to me is trying to figure out exactly how things hang together. Everything is connected in many different ways—some obvious, some not. If you watch closely, you notice the Bechimo project gets an off-handed mention during Trade Secrets, for instance. And I'm pretty sure that group of scouts who make off with Jethri's stuff are in the early years of what is later known as the Department of the Interior.
Alan Brown
9. AlanBrown
I am just getting back into the Liaden Universe after a few years away, and I am delighted to see the books coming out at a rapid clip. Right now, I am starting the series of books kicked off by Fledgling, so it will be a while before I get around to this latest one.
But I have always enjoyed the mix of action and romance that these stories bring. Lee and Miller are nice folks, so it is great to see the series has been able to continue despite the vagaries of the publishing industry.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Elizabeth Doolin
11. mochabean
@8 yes I love those little Easter eggs. And the Uncle is always intriguing so there must be hope for Jethri down the road!
12. Char
I thought Necessity's Child was quite enjoyable, despite the discrepancies with Ghost Ship and despite the space gypsies. Loved the interactions between young Kezzie and Syl Vor. Hilarious at times. Good fight scenes. Enjoyed the scene with Mr. Shaper, and Syl Vor's midnight rendezvous with Tree. Too bad it had that one sex scene -- it could be a great book for kids. I hope the developments with Rhys Lin pen'Chala go somewhere in the upcoming sequels.

Agree that Trade Secret was a bit sluggish and even at times boring. Awkward and uninspiring sex initiaion scene. Plus, there is only so much on culture and manners I can find engrossing. I liked Balance of Trade more than Trade Secret. But it was an enjoyable rainy day read.

Wish the authors had created a link between Trade Secret and Agent of Change, by showing how the DoI began, where they got their secret to brain washing, etc. Was hoping for backstory on Bechimo, too.

Ah, well. Looking forward to the next five books in the series. Have read about them at Korval.com and am assured that the upcoming BIG FIVE will address the current state of affairs: Surebleak, Bechimo, DoI, etc.
13. Char
@8, Robotech

Yes, I think you may be right, but it was quite vague. My understanding is that the next five books will be set in current time, so I had hoped this book, set in the past, would deliver the goods on the origins of Bechimo and the DoI. Did you feel we got anything solid?

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