by Suzanne Robinson (February 22, 2001)
Usually I hate reading books in manuscript form, but I made an exception for
the very bulky one I just received. It's the manuscript of Pilots
Choice, the latest entry in Steve Miller and Sharon Lee's Liaden Universe
Pilots Choice is set on the world of Liad, in a future time where
Liadens, Terrans (earth's population) and Yxtrang, the three human races,
travel, trade, love and war across the known universe. Customs differ among
these races, causing no end of difficulties for the characters we get to know
and care about (including giant talking turtles and a sentient tree, Jelaza
Kazone). Because of their perfect mix of plot, characterization and
romance, Miller and Lee have created a fascinating, many-layered universe that
you won't want to leave when the book ends.
If you're a romance reader looking for some variety from the formulaic romances
all too prevalent these days, you'll be delighted with the two novels that make
up Pilots Choice. If you're a science fiction reader who enjoys a
good romance mixed with your space opera, Miller and Lee will satisfy that
craving. If you're already a fan, I can guarantee you'll love this book.
For those of us who already have Miller and Lee's books on our keeper shelves,
a new book is an excuse for a major celebration. We know there will be
interesting, fully-realized characters, adventure, wit, derring-do and plenty
of romance for those of us who yearn for that happy-ever-after when we dive
into a book.
Miller and Lee never disappoint. They've carried us along on a grand ride from
book to book, always leaving us panting for the next fix.
There almost wasn't a "next fix." After the first three Liad books (Agent
of Change, Conflict of Honors and Carpe Diem) their
publisher, Del Rey, told them sales weren't high enough to justify publishing
the already-outlined follow-up book in the series. As years went by, an avid
group of fans that wanted more from these authors began connecting through the
Internet. These increasingly vocal fans were heard. Stephen Pagel of Meisha Merlin Publishing came through,
first with a much-needed compilation of the original Liaden series in omnibus
form, titled Partners in Necessity. A follow-up sequel, Plan
B, was introduced in 2000. This month, Pilots Choice makes its
debut. It contains two novels, Local Custom and Scout's
Progress, written when Steve and Sharon were between publishers, "just for
fun." What a windfall for loyal - and new -- readers!
Each book is an extremely satisfying read, and they come with an additional
bonus - that of defining and expanding their fans' knowledge of the universe
Steve and Sharon have created. Both books take place some years prior to the
current series, but these prequels won't disappoint, and fans will meet
favorite characters that they know and love.
Local Custom and Scout's Progress (in addition to the
original series, the next book of which is due in 2002) are marketed as science
fiction, but they remain among the best romances I've ever read. If you enjoy
genres other than science fiction and fantasy, and are familiar with the witty,
urbane conversation in the novels of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, you will
recognize cadences and catch-phrases in the dialogue spoken by the Liadens.
Most of Heyer's imitators never get it quite right. Miller and Lee don't
imitate, they just incorporate this style seamlessly into their overall
narrative. Even more impressive, their dialogue is also full of the sly wit
that is such a part of Heyer's style. If you're not familiar with Heyer, don't
worry - all you'll miss are a few witty allusions, but if you do read Heyer,
you'll get a little extra from these books.
In the two books that make up Pilots Choice, romance readers will
recognize in Local Custom a Beta hero (but with a few twists), and in
Scout's Progress they give us an Alpha. I usually prefer an Alpha
hero, and there are some wonderful parallels between roguish Daav and Sir
Richard Wyndham in Heyer's The Corinthian. But I must admit, the more
I go back to Er Thom's story, the more his quiet strength appeals to me. I'll
leave it at that - I don't intend to synopsize the plots. I want the reader to
savor every twist and turn.
The romantic relationship is central to both these books. I've read that
science fiction publishers market primarily to the 12-25 year old male, who
supposedly dislikes romance in the books he reads. For this readership, a
little sex is okay, but no smoochy stuff, or cuddling, or (shudder) emotional
byplay. Debra Doyle, in her net rant, The Girl Cooties Theory of
Genre Literature talks about the small, but extremely vocal, minority
of science fiction readers and writers "who are deathly afraid of getting girl
cooties," if there's romance in their preferred reading matter. The guys
supposedly prefer the technical aspects, the science, the physics or whatever,
and have no use for characters with emotions.
Not true. Having raised three boys myself, I can tell you with some authority
that a 14-year-old boy is the ultimate romantic. He will read and love a book
like Scout's Progress - he just won't tell his peers about it. It's
obvious to me that Sharon and Steve's publisher should be marketing their books
to these boys' mothers and sisters, and I think that's beginning to happen.
While central, the romantic conflict isn't the only thing going on in these
books. There are sub-themes of honor, loyalty, generational conflict,
differing customs, and duty to society and family, which are smoothly
integrated into the fast-paced plots. Sharon and Steve's vision of their
universe is one the reader can truly get lost in. When you finally put one of
their books down, you will blink and wonder why you aren't sitting under the
spreading branches of Jelaza Kazone.
So go buy these books - and lose yourself.
The Interview February 22, 2001
Suzanne - Now, with the publication of the prequels Local Custom and Scout's Progress in the omnibus Pilots Choice, in what order to you recommend new readers tackle your books?
Steve & Sharon: This is becoming one of the most common questions -- we'll have to add it to our FAQ! But it looks like the best order is: Conflict of Honors, Agent of Change, Carpe Diem (all in Partners in Necessity and available individually electronically from www.embiid.net); then Plan B, followed by Local Custom and Scout's Progress (both included in Pilots Choice, or as individual electronic books from Embiid), and then the forthcoming I Dare. We should mention that there are some shorter works available in chapbooks that illuminate certain aspects of the series -- for example Two Tales of Korval shows how Val Con meets his Turtle "brother", Duty Bound (which should be read after Plan B), and novella "Changeling", which should also be read after Plan B.
Suzanne - After reading Pilots Choice and then re-reading the whole series (necessity!), I'm eager to explore both future and past in the Liaden universe, and you have created so many vivid characters whose stories beg to be told - do you have the big picture mapped out? What's in store in the future for Clan Korval?
Steve & Sharon: The big picture is pretty big and will eventually mean going all the way back to the period just before the founding of Clan Korval. We're waiting for the contract on the 2003 book -- we just reached agreement on that and the probable order of books through 2005.
Suzanne - We've read about your surprise when coming online at the tremendous sf/f fan interest in your series. When did you become aware that you had a loyal and growing fan base among romance readers? And how do you feel about it?
Steve & Sharon: The romance readers showed up right away, actually -- one of our best early reviews was in Romantic Times! Once we were online we quickly saw that our mailing list contained eclectic readers -- mystery buffs, romance readers, fans of historical novels -- mostly people who liked good stories about people. Among our early readers, for example, was Susan Krinard. Others were Rosemary Edghill and Anne McCaffrey. We're pleased to have the romance readers - they seem to have a special appreciation for subtle character and language play.
Steve: Sue Krinard was so interested in our work that she painted a wonderful portrait of Val Con and Miri that was shown at WorldCon one year. I managed to buy it and sneak it into the house for a birthday present for Sharon (which took the connivance of Sue and my boss, who let us ship the picture to her house and gave me an hour off to hang it on the wall where it would greet her when she got home).
Suzanne - Do you ever get a backlash from sf readers because of the strong romantic threads in your books?
Steve & Sharon: Absolutely not. We have had a couple he-man types be upset at the "feminine" aspects of Liaden high society, especially the tendency for males to be soft-spoken and well-mannered. Mostly in the SF circles we're praised for our world building and characterization, and the romance is seen as part of the characterization.
Suzanne - How is it possible to find a way to market your books to a wider audience of romance readers while keeping sf readers in the fold?
Steve: I don't think keeping sf readers in the fold is a problem -- they'll read us if they like us, just as romance readers will. Part of the key is getting the word out to romance reviewers, some of who wouldn't look past the spaceships or guns of the original novels to see what the stories were about. Just let all the romance readers -- and all the romance reviewers you trust -- know about the books.
Suzanne - The wonderful regency-ish Liaden dialogue is such a treat for Heyer and Austen fans. How did you come up with such a sly, clever idea?
Sharon: Gee, I wish I could claim it as a sly, clever idea. The Raw Truth is that the Regency cadence fit so well with your average Liaden's assumption of superiority, that neither Steve nor I ever questioned it. I do love the way the "accents" work off of each other - Terran being a sort of rough 'n ready language and High Liaden prone to rolling periods and poetical understatement.
Suzanne - As a big fan of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, I thought I saw some interesting shadows of her Lymond in the personality of Val Con, which I very much enjoyed. Am I imagining this?
Steve & Sharon: Yes. We've never read any Dunnett. Perhaps it was the Heyer-reading peeking out.
Suzanne - We are very interested in the process as well as the product of writing, and hope you won't mind a few questions about the mechanics of it all. It is fascinating to conjecture on how two writers collaborate. Can you share with us the way you work through a book?
Steve & Sharon: Much of the core of each story is talked out incessantly before we sit down to write. This happens at the breakfast table, at lunch, at dinner, over wine in the evenings, and when we travel. In other words, just about any time we're together one may turn to the other and say "And then, this must happen.... Sometimes we'll accidentally slip into a bit of dialog or role-playing where there are people who can overhear portions of it, leading one rather forward wait-person to comment "Ya'll sure do have an interesting family...."
Physically, Sharon usually puts most of the first draft into the computer and then Steve gets the second draft, with the final draft being a winnowing process with both of us involved. Certain types of scenes may fall to one or the other of us because of our backgrounds -- Sharon is more apt to do the knife-fights and Steve more likely to do the piloting sequences, for example -- but either of us may rough out a scene so the other can polish it, or so we can come back ourselves after discussion. By the end of a book we have a hard time pointing to any particular line and saying "This is mine" because each book has a voice of its own.
The hardest few hours of "writing" a book destined for publication is the extremely intense time of reading galley proofs. We tend to do this by having one read from the back and one from the front and we pass each other in the middle so two pairs of eyes see each page.
Suzanne - What does writing together (especially about such strong, loving relationships) bring to your own relationship?
Steve & Sharon: Well, it gives us interesting -- and very strong! -- role models. Probably the role-playing helps us avoid some problems. Since we each have our own office and work full-time from home, we have our own physical space to work in, but we almost always meet for lunch and dinner, light a beeswax candle, and relax. All in all what we have is the joy of being with someone we like while doing what we want to do.
Suzanne - Tell us what you can about the concluding book in the current Liaden series, I Dare, which will pick up where Plan B left off.
Steve & Sharon: You'll be able to pre-order it from Meisha Merlin starting around August, 2001 <two grins>. I Dare is the largest individual novel we've written so far and while we can say it will surprise a few of our longtime readers we can't say too much more, because our readers are really sharp and we don't want to have them guessing the thrilling conclusion before the book goes to print.
Suzanne - And finally, since after reading Pilots Choice we'll have to find something to read before I Dare debuts in February, 2002,...what authors do you enjoy reading?
Steve & Sharon: A few years ago a thread on "what books do you like" got started on the Liaden Universe mailing list and before we knew it there was enough information to put together what we called the "Congruent Authors List". It turned out that a lot of our readers liked to read the same kinds of things, and several have used it as a reading list... you can find it at: http://www.korval.com/congru2.htm and it is hard for us to improve on that. Steve tends to read books on trains, chess, and the like as well as what fiction comes his way; what he doesn't tend to like is fiction that takes itself too seriously or that has the intent to depress. Sharon reads biographies, mysteries, romances, cereal boxes - just about anything, really <grin> Authors we generally read include Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, and authors with a similar bent toward characterization, action, and conflicts of custom.