Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Saltation" by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

(cover image from

A saltation is a leap, a jump, an abrupt transition. (I don't know about you, but I had to look it up.) It's also the title of the brand new sequel to Fledgling (which I reviewed here), part of the long-running Liaden series of space opera by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

If you're familiar with the other Liaden books - and if not, you shouldn't be starting with either of these - Saltation will come as no surprise. That's the problem. At the end of Fledgling, Theo Waitley was about to enter pilot school (starship pilot school, of course), and she turns out to be incredibly gifted - like just about every other character in this series. She wows her instructors, while making some enemies and a few friends...  Stop me if you've heard this before (like in every space academy story ever written, for starters).

For more than two-thirds of the book, Theo faithfully follows along this standard formula of gifted, but misunderstood, misfit at boarding school. It's exactly what you'd expect. It's not badly written. Indeed, it's entertaining enough. Lee and Miller are skilled writers who have a real gift for making appealing characters. But I spent pretty much the whole book just anxious to get to the end of it. Well, any Liaden fan already knows how it ends, because we first saw Theo Waitley in a brief appearance at the end of I Dare. This book is almost entirely just a vehicle to get her to that point. I'm wondering if a preamble would have worked just as well.

There are a couple of other problems with the book. I mentioned earlier that Fledgling was science fiction in which the science was anthropology (or sociology, if there's a difference). After so many books, I doubt if Lee and Miller have much new to say about Liaden culture, so I was glad to see in Fledgling a new world and a new culture or two (not to mention new characters). We don't get that in Saltation. In fact, we don't get much of anything that we haven't seen before.

And although Theo is an appealing character, we discovered all that in Fledgling. There's nothing new we learn about her in this book. And Saltation is pretty much all Theo. In other books in the series, there are several appealing characters. Even the minor characters are great. As I say, Lee and Miller have a real gift for inventing characters we care about. But they haven't bothered to do so this time. Since Theo must end up alone and in trouble at the end of the book (that's not a spoiler, since it's just a description of the scene in I Dare), minor characters in this book apparently had to stay really minor.

All this was disappointing, because I was eagerly looking forward to Saltation. Don't get me wrong, it's an easy read. I read it all in one go. But the best things about this series - the many appealing characters and the great examination of varied cultures - are absent in this book. I normally don't want a Liaden novel to end, but in this case, through most of the book, I was just impatient to get to the end, to get through this necessary middle (Theo must become a pilot) and get on with the real story. That's not what I expect from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

But things picked up when she finally left Anlingdin Piloting Academy (as we know from the beginning will surely happen, since again we know we're heading for that final scene in I Dare). Yes, we've seen this part before, too - the standard on-the-job training from the old-timer - but the problem which finally causes her to seek out the Delm of Korval was unexpected. Interestingly, it's connected to a standalone book in the series, one with all different characters and not even a mention of Korval, Balance of Trade (which might be my favorite book in the Liaden Universe). That was kind of neat.

At any rate, I am anxious to see the next book in the series. Saltation was very much a middle book - seemingly the ultimate middle book, in fact, with all of a middle book's faults - but we're finally back to where I Dare ended. And there's a new situation which could be very interesting. I'm anxious to see where Lee and Miller take that.

But at this point, I can't say that I'm overly optimistic. Fledgling was great because we got a new planet and new characters, but now we're back on Liad with everyone else, and I'm wondering if Lee and Miller really have anything new to say about that. I Dare itself seemed rushed, as if they wanted to wrap everything up neatly for the conclusion, but now it's not going to be the conclusion. And there's almost nothing in Saltation that gives me hope for a fresh direction. (Yeah, quite a different feeling from after my reading of Fledgling, huh?)

I'll admit that I'm anxious to see what Korval does next. But a series should stop while you still want more. Most series - the vast majority - continue long after the author has anything new to say, with each book being less interesting than the previous. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series is the only long-running series that's bucked that trend (at least, up until the last book, Diplomatic Immunity, anyway). Lee and Miller haven't found anything to replace the Liaden Universe, but I think they must.

But maybe they'll prove me wrong. Despite my disappointment with Saltation, I am anxious to see what comes next. The Liaden Universe is comfort food for the soul. It's not great science fiction, but it's lots of fun. It's the kind of fiction I can - and have - read over and over again. It might not be serious science fiction, but few authors can do this kind of thing even half as well as Lee and Miller.

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