Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Meisha Merlin
Book Review by Richard R. Horton
Since its founding by Stephen Pagel in about 1998, the Georgia based house Meisha Merlin has earned a certain prominence in the SF field. They’ve published quite a few titles in the past few years, including reprints and new books by popular writers who’d gone out of print, such as Lee Killough and P. C. Hodgell; and writers new to the field, for example, mainstream novelist Jim Grimsley published the fantasy novel Kirith Kirin with Meisha Merlin. One of their canniest strategies, in my opinion, has been to find series that have a strong following, but which have been out of print, reprint the books, hence reestablishing, to some degree, their popularity, and then extend the series with new books. So with Hodgell and Killough. And so with Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, who represent almost an archetypal case.
Lee and Miller published three Liaden Universe novels in about 1990. They sold only modestly, but they gained a loyal following. In the past decade or so, Lee and Miller have piqued interest in their universe with a series of chapbooks, containing a number of Liaden and unrelated short stories. But though they wrote two additional novels, and plotted a couple more, they were unable to sell the books, partly because many publishers are reluctant to take on a series orphaned by an earlier publisher, and partly, no doubt, because the publishing world is hard on writers who haven’t made it big after a couple or three books. But, finally, Meisha Merlin expressed interest in publishing an omnibus edition of the first three books, which had become popular enough that used copies were difficult to find. Hearing of additional books in the universe, Meisha Merlin bought those as well. The fourth Liaden novel, Plan B, was published in 1999, and the omnibus of the first three, called Partners in Necessity, saw print in 2000. Now, in 2001, we see another omnibus, this one collecting two novels written in the early ’90s, but here published for the first time.
The book at hand, ungrammatically titled Pilots Choice, contains two prequels to the earlier novels. One tells the story of the romance of the parents of the hero of the first Liaden novel, and the other the story of the romance of the parents of the hero of the second Liaden novel. Both books are primarily science fiction romances (in contrast to the earlier books, which are more purely Space Opera, with elements of romance). I detected the distinct influence of Georgette Heyer (acknowledged by the authors in an afterword).
Local Custom is the first book. It tells of Anne Davis, a Terran Professor of Linguistics who had a fling with a Liaden Master Trader, Er Thom yos Galan, some three years prior to the action of the novel. A son resulted, of whom Er Thom knows nothing. Back on Liad, Er Thom is being urged to take a contract wife and provide his clan with a child, but he can not bring himself to take any interest in any Liaden women. He decides to return to Anne to say farewell once and for all, and provide himself with emotional closure. Instead, he finds that his feelings for her (and hers for him) are as intense as ever. Also, he finds he has a son, whom she has named Shan yos Galan. By Liaden custom, that son belongs to his Clan, surely Anne will see it that way, surely anyone would? Anne misunderstands, but agrees to visit Er Thom’s family. Once there, she faces the hostility of his prickly Aunt, who cannot tolerate the thought of a Terran in the family; as well as danger from those proud Liadens who object to her linguistics studies; and finally, the horror of realizing that Er Thom believes that Shan will stay on Liad. The resolution comes when all sides come to some accommodation with the local customs of the others.
The second novel, Scout’s Progress, in many ways a direct sequel to the first, finds Er Thom’s beloved cousin Daav, an ex-Scout and a Master Pilot, also facing the necessity of a contract marriage. He is somewhat resigned to this, despite disliking his arranged mate, and despite facing the hostility of her family to the presence of a Terran in his extended household. At the same time the brilliant mathematician Aelliana Caylon, daughter of an impoverished Clan, is facing abuse from her vain brother, who resents her abilities. Her only thought is to escape to Terran space, where the strict social rules that govern Liadens do not apply, but how? Then, rather improbably, she finds herself with a spaceship, and the Master Pilot who ends up helping her get her pilot’s license is, well, you’ve guessed it.
It’s clear that these two novels are in the Romance mode, and they share some of the weaknesses of the typical Regency Romance, for one, the place of the lower classes on Liad is rather glossed over (just as with the lower classes of England in 1814), for another; the heroes are all strikingly talented; for a third, plenty of coincidence intervenes in their favor. But take these as conventions of the genre and let them pass. The stories also have the strengths of the better Romances, engaging characters, involving love stories, a fairly believable strict social structure against which to mildly rebel. I found them compulsively readable, and very, very enjoyable—indeed, they are my favorites of the Liaden novels to date.