Books Reviewed: Fledgling; Saltation

Barnes & Noble owes the genius who put the ATM right next to their store many dollars in royalties, based purely on my own purchases.  I have a habit – not a bad one (he says) but likely a fiscally irresponsible one – of wandering into the store every couple weeks immediately after collecting my cash for the period.  I have money, and the store has books – it’s a perfect match!

On one of these trips which take me usually to the science fiction and fantasy shelves I picked up a copy of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Fledgling.  It is, in so many words, a delightful book.  It is a very rare thing to find books written with obvious care and exacting attention to detail; rarer still in sci-fi sold in cheap paperback format; and yet rarer in works written jointly.  The sheer precision of Lee and Miller’s prose would have won me over, even were the story less entrancing.

The authors have brought to life a universe nicely in line with the Standard Sci-Fi Setting: multiple planets, faster-than-light travel, differentiated cultures – the works.  However, it is all assembled with a care rarely shown by other authors – even Zahn or Banks rarely reach the exacting level found in Fledgling.  And in choice of protagonist – and supporting cast – is found barely a hint of the Great War Event – possible, past, ongoing, or encroaching – so common in science fiction.  Academic conflicts, it appears, can be made an equally enthralling setting for the journey of self-discovery (though this as a summary is somewhat misleading).

In short, it is a book I would highly recommend, not just to fans of science fiction, but to anyone in search of a good novel.

The cover of Fledgling proclaimed it “A New Liaden Universe Novel”, so I could hardly be unaware that it was one of an ongoing setting, if a new series.  I have no idea if the previously published books were as good; I am however well aware of the disease known as sequelitis and so put off, for a long time, picking up the sequel Saltation.  (Much to my surprise, that is a real word.)  To my disappointment, if not surprise, Saltation is in fact not nearly as good.

The exquisite prose is still largely a feature, if not of as even quality.  Much of the flow of the story is, however, lost to a plot which feels forced in many places.  Fledgling could stand alone; Saltation is unmistakeably a sequel and a bridge to (at least in intention) Clearly Greater Things, and suffers for it by a lack of definition.

I should take a minute to say that some of this is clearly intentional – the rush, the hurry, the shifting out of place are all crucial elements to the story.  I may not be being fair to the authors artistically, relying instead on my preferences for tighter storytelling with, as the White King would advise, a clear beginning and a definite end.  But in one particular at least there is a real flaw with Saltation as a novel: this is that it does not, properly speaking, have an ending at all, even a fairly indefinite one on the model of, say, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine.  The series complete, this may not be a problem at the end of things; as a novel read on its own, it is, as they say, a problem.

A final issue – and I dislike bringing it up, as it is not exactly an artistic concern, but I ought in conscience mention it – is that Saltation does not refrain from paying the required lip-service to the 21st century’s sexual egalitarians’ agenda.  (Not that the societies of the universe of Fledgling are strictly “traditional”, but they are, as it were, plausible deviations from the norm rather than the “accomplishments – or imagined conclusions – of a rather decadent age.)  Whether this is the authors’ opinion honestly written or an attempt to be “modern” and “fair-minded” I cannot tell.  It is – unlike some books I could name – neither blatant nor ham-fisted, nor does it intrude on the story – but it is not exactly pertinent to the story either, and so jarring to a reader like myself when noticed.  In a different circle I might not mention it, so little does it impact either the story or the style, but I know many of my readers here share my morals and thus should be duly warned.

This should not be taken as meaning I disliked the book.  If I were issuing grades, Fledgling earns an A about a point away from an A+, while Saltation is a weak B-.  Even as part of an ongoing story, the ending of the book should have been better handled.

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