Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Ghost Ship" by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

(cover image from

I read a lot of series fiction, and in my book reviews, I'm always telling you not to start with the most recent book. And that's going to be the case here, too.

But when it comes to something like Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series, her books are complete in themselves. It's just that they share characters, and the characters grow. Events in later books are more poignant - and sometimes funnier - when you know the characters and the history behind them.

Well, that's also the case with the Liaden Universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, but their books are seldom complete in themselves. The whole series is about Clan Korval of Liad, and the main storyline - which began in Agent of Change (1988) - is basically one long story (admittedly, sometimes focusing on different characters).

So you really can't jump into the middle of this series. Indeed, I was a bit lost myself when I started Ghost Ship (2011). In fact, I had to set it down and go back to reread the last part of Saltation first, just to remind myself of what was going on.

(Note that some of these books will work as a standalone read. Balance of Trade (2004) isn't about Clan Korval, but it's set in the same universe, hundreds of years previously. It might be my favorite of all their books, and it's complete in itself.

(One of the first books, Conflict of Honors (1988) would also work as a standalone read, although the characters continue in the rest of the series. Either of those books would work fine as a sample. But if you want to read the series, you need to start with Agent of Change and continue from there. I recommend publication order, myself.)

Anyway, Ghost Ship is the sequel to Saltation (2010) following a new character, Theo Waitley, whose story began in Fledgling (2009). But it's also the sequel to I Dare (2004), continuing the story of Clan Korval's expulsion from Liad and their move to Surebleak.

It is very, very much a middle book, and it's chock-full of characters - mostly those we've seen before, with a couple of new ones. The scene shifts rather rapidly from one to another - and it works! Oh, a new reader would be hopelessly confused by it. As I say, even I had to reread a bit of the previous book. But still, this one was a very pleasant... experience.

I was going to say "surprise," but I've long known that Lee and Miller could write like this. But I had a number of problems with Saltation, all of which were fixed quite well in Ghost Ship. The story is moving forward again, so we don't know where it's going to end (this book doesn't really have an ending). It's not nearly as predictable, and it has lots of great characters.

And unlike I Dare, which did much the same thing, this book doesn't seem rushed. OK, there was one very peculiar development near the end of the book. (This really isn't a spoiler, I don't think, but if you don't want to know anything about the developments in the book, you might stop reading now.)

Clear back in Carpe Diem (1989), Val Con and Miri found themselves on a restricted world, where they met some great people and, of course, had some exciting adventures. Well, the Department of the Interior decides that it's going to move onto Vandar in force. When Val Con learns about this, he decides to do something about it.

The next thing we know, Val Con is back home. Everything is now fine on Vandar. How? Well, who knows? This is so weird, and it's such a book-sized hole in the story, that I suspect the authors plan to write a separate book about his adventures there. But I really don't know. (If that were the case, I wish they'd included a footnote in this one!)

But that's a minor issue, really. I certainly would like to see another book about Vandar (and I would really hope that Nelirikk Explorer would have a big part to play in that, because we hardly see him at all in this book), but I don't know about that, one way or another. However, I can say that I'm very happy with Ghost Ship.

Finally, note that the clan has moved to Surebleak, bringing a lot of new people with them. Well, as we saw in I Dare, Surebleak has its own customs, and now they're bringing Liadens, who have a very particular set of customs themselves, to the planet.

One of the real strengths of this series is how they depict the variety - and the conflict - of cultures. In Saltation, I worried that the authors might have nothing more that was new to say. And I don't think they do have anything new to say about Liaden culture. But Clan Korval is no longer on Liad, and the mix of customs on their new planet might end up very, very interesting.

Well, I'm just hugely impressed with Ghost Ship. It's not a standalone book. It doesn't have a real beginning or a real end. But it's an exceptional part of the Liaden storyline. And it brings a lot of threads together (even one from Balance of Trade), so there's just an abundance of possibilities here.

I'm a lot more optimistic about the future of the series than I was at the end of Saltation. Can they keep that up? I guess we'll see.


Carl V. Anderson said...

I finally got around to finishing this one today. Really enjoyed it. After feeling Saltation dragged for much of the book before finally rocketing off towards a cliffhanger ending, I found this one much more even in its pacing. I've enjoyed Theo's story and look forward to continuing on with it and also working back through the earlier stories about other characters too. Miri is becoming a big favorite of mine.

WCG said...

I'm glad you liked it, Carl. Thanks for the comment.

SkipperK Daniels said...

Glad you enjoyed GHOST SHIP! The "book-sized hole in the story" about Val Con's return to Vandar can be completed by reading PRODIGAL SON, a short story published in the duology ALLIES and also in the larger anthology CONSTELLATION II. (But start with CARPE DIEM, if you haven't already read it.)

Bill Garthright said...

Thanks, Skipper. Yes, I've been reading this series since the 1980s, even before Carpe Diem. A short story, huh? I'll have to track that down.

But that really was a "book-sized" hole, don't you think? I hardly feel like a short-story could do it justice.

Of course, you never know what to expect in this series. Normally, time doesn't move very quickly, as the authors tell a story - part of a larger story - in detail. But then they'll rush through something, leaving me rather disappointed.

I Dare was a bit like that. It seemed like multiple novels worth of plot all crammed together in order to wrap up the series. (Or so it seemed to me, at least. After that, they tried to start a new series with The Tomorrow Log, and then wrote Liaden books outside of the Korval thread, before finally returning to it several years later.)

I know it's hard to stop a successful series. The financial draw - for authors and publishers alike - is just too strong. But I really wish authors would stop writing while I'm still wanting more, rather than continuing until I'm sick of the whole thing.

Admittedly, when it comes to this series, I'm not there yet. :)

SkipperK Daniels said...

Yes, these authors have an odd way of telling a story, in terms of the classic pattern: beginning, middle, end. Closure is apparently not a big deal to them. LOL. I sometimes worry I will fall off a cliff before hearing "the rest of the story" and the demise of the Department of the Interior.

I do enjoy the journey, though, and the characters, so I put up with occasional annoyances (abrupt scene jumping, plot-holes, plot-contrivances, character breaches, discontinuity across books, etc)

I am not sick of the whole series yet, either, but I'm starting to feel a bit disenchanted. I hope the financial draw doesn't effect the writing, but sometimes I wonder.

Anyway, I do recommend the short story, Prodigal Son. Despite its brevity, it does bring the Vandar plot thread to some closure.

Bill Garthright said...

Thanks, Skipper. I'll check it out. Luckily, the internet makes it easier to buy short stories these days.