Book Review: Fledgling, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
November 17, 2009 | 5:18 pm
Fledgling, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, is a fun return to their Liaden universe, the first half of a bildungsroman for a character who has been the subject of Liaden fan curiosity for the longest time. That being said, it also makes a good jumping-on point for people new to the Liaden universe. I highly recommend it.
The novel Fledgling, and its sequel Saltation, are two of the biggest success stories of the “Storyteller’s Bowl” e-publishing format. As we reported before, the idea behind this format is that the writer agrees to post one chapter per week as long as reader donations hit a certain threshold. (Here is a PBS Mediashift article on the practice, including an interview with Lee & Miller.)
|Fledgling, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
Necessity is considered a powerful force by Liaden characters; these characters often use the phrase “necessity exists” to explain why they must take some risky action.
Thus, it seems entirely appropriate that the idea for Fledgling was born out of financial necessity: when Lee & Miller’s publisher Meisha Merlin went under without paying the royalties it owed them, they needed a quick source of income to get them through the winter.
At the same time, they needed to explore the backstory to a mysterious character introduced on the last page of the last “main plotline” Liaden novel published back in 2002. Since the character would feature prominently in the next “main” novel (were a publisher to be interested), they needed to “meet” her and learn more about her and her world.
The problem was that such side-story books are generally “expected to be of little interest, except to stalwart fans of a series,” and do not tend to sell well to publishers. Thus, Lee and Miller decided simply to publish it themselves. In lieu of an advance, they would write and post the draft using the “Storyteller’s Bowl” format.
The idea was that once the draft had been fully written, they would pay to have it professionally edited and then printed, and send copies to those people who had donated at least $25 each. Happily, the book and its sequel were eventually picked up for publication by Baen making that no longer necessary.
As Lee and Miller write in the book’s Afterword:
We figured, you see, that we would start off strong, then donations would slope away, and we’d be posting a chapter every, oh, two or three weeks.
Before December was over, readers had funded ten chapters. By the time the first chapter was posted, we were committed to writing twenty weekly episodes in the life and times of Theo Waitley.
In the end, they wrote 31 chapters, which became 42 in the final book.
The Liaden Universe
Fledgling is set in the Liaden Universe, a setting that Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have been living in for decades. The Liaden stories combine an amazing number of genres—science-fiction, space-opera, fantasy, romance, espionage, military, wild-west, and more. It is one of my favorite settings, and I like to reread it from start to finish every so often.
Centuries after fleeing a collapsing universe, humanity is split into at least three sub-races: Terrans, Liadens, and Yxtrangi. The galaxy is still very much a frontier, like the wild west, and Pilots are a highly-respected cross between long-haul truck driver and samurai.
The main five-book arc tells an epic story, and the other books and short stories weave many threads through and around that story to create a universe that feels like a rich tapestry. Baen is reprinting these books in omnibus form, and already offers “e-omnibus” bundles of all the novels prior to Fledgling and most of the related short stories.
Much as I do highly recommend reading them all, no knowledge of these earlier works is necessary to enjoy Fledgling. Having read them does enrich the experience, but apart from one or two minor references to past continuity (such as the way Professor Jen Sar Kiladi converses with a woman named Aellianna inside his head), the book is quite self-contained. It is a coming-of-age story for a character who is herself being introduced to the larger galaxy, so readers can be introduced to it at the same time.
The protagonist is a girl named Theo Waitley, who was introduced in the Back to the Future style “here we go again” ending of I Dare—a young woman who runs up to the main characters, out of breath, with a problem that she can only describe as “kind of complicated” before the book ends.
Fledgling is set several years earlier, when Theo is on the cusp of adulthood, just a few months away from her coming-of-age ceremony. She lives and studies in a university on the planet Delgado, a “safe world” renowned for its scholarship. And she has problems fitting in.
Theo has just had to move out of her father, Jen Sar Kiladi’s, house back to the cramped, sterile confines of the university itself. And as a half-Liaden (and more importantly, half-Korval Liaden, though she does not know it), her reflexes are a problem. Though she actually has extremely good reflexes, they do not mesh well with the average reflexes most other students have—so she is the one who is labeled “clumsy”.
At the same time, her mother Kamele has problems of her own: cases of academic dishonesty and document alteration have been found that threaten the reputation of the entire university. She and Kiladi must intrigue to uncover the conspiracy behind it before it is too late.
The Perils of Academe
Perilous academic settings are a staple of the Liaden books, perhaps because the authors come from academic backgrounds themselves. One book featured a university where “defending one’s thesis” was done with swords and daggers.
The world of Delgado is not quite that dangerous, but it is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time in the way that good settings often are. Since it is a “safe world,” emphasis is placed on the safety and conformity of its inhabitants. There are strict curfews, and security police who record all incidents.
The world is “safe” for most of its inhabitants—but it poses a challenge to Theo, since she does not conform to the society’s norms. This provides an interesting chance to examine the practice of “tranquilizing into normality” that some people practice even today.
Another interesting twist to the setting is that Delgado is decidedly matriarchal: women are the ones whose rights take precedence. Cultural norms vary from world to world, of course (the idea of “local custom” taking precedence is one of the major themes of the setting), and Pilot culture is something else altogether. All these different cultures give the setting a very interesting flavor.
First Draft vs. Final
I first read this book in its serialized draft form as it was posted chapter by chapter, in 2007. Since I donated $25, I recently received my autographed hardcover copy of the finished book, which I read over the last day or so.
It was a good book, but the inconvenience of carrying it around with me made me long for the electronic version. The e-version does also exist, of course. Thanks to Baen Webscriptions, it can be bought and then downloaded in a variety of formats. I will probably purchase it eventually, but could not justify it given that I had the print book already.
The change from draft to final form is definitely noticeable. The final book is a lot more polished, and takes into account ideas that formed during the writing of the sequel, Saltation. It also fleshes out a subplot that I seem to remember appearing only vaguely in the draft and not actually coming to any sort of fruition.
If Fledgling has a problem, it is that it really only tells half the story. As is often the case with books, the original tale grew in the telling until it was necessary to create a sequel project, Saltation, to tell the second half—and Saltation will not be published by Baen until April, 2010. It does not end as abruptly as Peter David’s Darkness of the Light, but it still stops at a point where the reader wants to know what happens next.
For those who are really impatient after finishing Fledgling, the draft form of Saltation is still available to read on-line at Lee & Miller’s website. (I might just go read it again myself.)
And some other good news: it was recently announced that Baen has contracted for the book that will continue Saltation and follow I Dare, tentatively titled Ghost Ship. We Liad fans can hardly wait.
As a well-written coming-of-age story about a fun character in an interesting setting, Fledgling is well worth checking out.