In the 1980s, Lee and Miller published three novels (unread by me) set in the Liaden Universe. Del Rey dropped the series, but the novels have been re-published by Meisha Merlin, along with Pilots Choice, which contains two previously-unpublished adventures in the series. They are of the sub-genre known as “space opera,” but to me they read like space Regencies.
I don’t mean that in a flippant or condescending way; those of us who love romance and science fiction know that a book that successfully fuses the two genres is a rare and precious thing. The two novels that comprise Pilots Choice by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are wildly successful as romantic novels of custom, set in the future. As in traditional Regency romances, the characters must find ways to be their true selves and to find love, in spite of the constrictions of the highly complex, rigidly systematized culture of Liad. Liaden culture is similar to that of Regency England, in that a simple gesture – be it dancing two dances in a row, or touching someone on the face – can be pregnant with meaning.
The first of the novels, Local Custom, is a love story between Anne Davis, a Terran linguistics scholar, and Er Thom yos’Galan, a Liad Master Trader. They met and had an intense affair three years ago, but the impossibility of the match led them to part. Now, Er Thom is required by clan and family to enter a contract marriage and produce a child, but the idea is distasteful to him because he is still in love with Anne. Er Thom begs a little help from Daav, his foster-brother (and the leader of his clan), and gets a reprieve to see Anne one last time. Complications ensue when he discovers that Anne, unbeknownst to him, has had his son.
In spite of its science-fiction trappings, Local Custom is a familiar, old-fashioned romance story. But it quickly rises above its premise to become a very interesting tale of the conflicts that can arise when two people of extremely different cultures fall in love. Although misunderstandings abound, this is not one of those irritating Big Misunderstanding novels in which a little conversation could have spared everyone a lot of pain. Er Thom and Anne speak one another’s languages and have lots of conversations, but a cultural gulf separates them. On Liad a kiss is not just a kiss, and a simple request like “Don’t let me make any mistakes” can be read as an unintended declaration of commitment. My only problem with this highly entertaining novel is that in the end the cultural gulf seemed to be spanned a bit too easily, and with a touch of deus ex machina.
Scout’s Progress is even better. In this novel, Daav yos’Phelium, leader of Clan Korval and arguably the most powerful man on Liad, is dreading his own upcoming contract marriage. Before assuming the duties of Korval Himself, Daav was a Scout, a sort of interplanetary explorer. Restless and anxious, he seeks day work as a mechanic and pilot with Binjali Repair Shop (a garage), where he can hang out with other ex-Scouts. Aelliana Caylon is an acknowledged mathematical genius, but the Liaden clan-system works against her, and she is the powerless wage-slave of her abusive brother. Aelliana embarks on an incredibly daring scheme to escape Liad, which begins with her winning a spaceship in a game of cards. When she goes to inspect her new ship at Binjali’s, she meets Daav, who does not reveal his true identity to her.
Scout’s Progress is more subtle than Local Custom and the relationship between the two protagonists grows slowly but powerfully. If Er Thom’s story was an introduction to the Liaden code of behavior, Daav’s shows how even the powerful and the brilliant can be trapped by it. A moving love story, Scout’s Progress also contains a very refreshing secondary character in Daav’s intended contract-bride. Rather than resorting to the usual Other Woman stereotypes, the authors instead give us a glimpse of the kind of woman you’d be lucky to have at your back in times of trouble. I hope to see her again.
Pilots Choice is liberally plastered with raves from such authors as Anne McCaffrey, Susan Krinard, and Mary Balogh. I’m very happy to add my recommendation to theirs: these stories are engrossing, intelligent, and loads of fun. My only complaint, in fact, is that the other books in the series look to be a bit hard to find. If you’re interested in reading them, I’d check out Amazon using the link below, or head over to the publisher’s web site: http://www.meishamerlin.com. I’m on my way right now to find more books in the Liaden Universe series.