First Wednesday of the Month, kids! Once upon a time we at Wonderland dubbed these find days Wicked Cool Wednesday!
In the name of full disclosure, that these things come together in this posting is a total accident, but hey: it's the first Wednesday of the month, is it not? And, this is, indeed, a Wicked Cool Overlooked Book. Happy Wednesday, and let the games begin!
Stumbled-upon books are the ABSOLUTE best. Stumbled upon SFF is even better.
Tech Boy enjoys Baen Books but they aren't always my cuppa tea, as they seem to specialize primarily in military SF, and how many endless wars with aliens, wars back in time on parallel Earths and wars in space can you read without them all running together? This novel is not strictly YA - it merely is about a young main character - but it works as a great crossover because it's character-driven, and you will love at least two of the characters a great deal, if not all three.
To be sure, I have NOT been in favor of Baen's latest attempts to get on the YA bandwagon; for the most part their efforts have been just painful and arrgh. However, Baen is still such a familiar go-to for a lot of libraries for crowd-friendly SFF that there's always plenty of volumes from which to choose, and I always try to give them a shot when I see an interesting-looking novel. This time I picked up Fledgling first because it was published in 2009, and #1 in a series -- which means there's a darn good chance that any sequels have already been published - but it also #15 in a series? Intrigued, I read on...
Reader Gut Reaction: Some people might argue this wasn't the best book to start with, but for me, coming fresh to the Liaden universe, it was just fine. The Liadens have apparently been going on for those previous 15 books, but Fledgling is, as the word suggests, a newbie. It's a good jumping off place - you don't have the history and the back story, but really, neither does the main character. She's running into things, tripping over her own feet, and getting sick of it... You'll find you're right with her.
Eons after evacuating a collapsing universe, what's left of Earth humanity is split into at least three sub-races: Terrans, Liadens, and Yxtrangi. The galaxy is still very much a wild frontier, and Pilots are a highly-respected cross between long-haul truck driver and samurai. For the sake of Fledgling, we only deal with Terrans and Liadens and touch only briefly on Pilots.
Delgado is a Safety World, where all the corners have been rounded off, all of the hard edges have been softened. Everyone and everything is designed to keep children and adults safe. No bad experiences. No anti-social peers. Everyone is at the same level - no one held back, no one forced forward. Everyone learns the same things, lives in the same clean, white housing in the Wall of Delgado University; eats from the same lists of foods in the Wall's kaf. Every student learns teamwork and "advertent" purposefulness, as opposed to inadvertent randomness; every adult in this city is a scholar, and the pursuit of scholarship is a fiercely desired, fiercely protected practice. Tenured professors are treated as demigods. On the surface of things, Delgado is a good place to grow up.
Efraim is the name of the town just outside the Wall where mostly non-academics live; its citizenship is a little more varied. While conformity, a strong police force and uniformity are the hallmarks of Delgado's safety, Efraim is about contrast, artisans, and uniqueness. It can be a place where you jostle against people who give you Looks and mutter things about you. It's definitely not Safe, but it is colorful and real. And, for a long time, it was home to one Theo Waitley, daughter of Kamele Waitley. It's not anymore.
Concerning Character: Theo is slightly piteous at the beginning of this novel. She is often on the verge of tears, barely holding it together for reasons which become immediately apparent - her family has split up. For all practical purposes, there aren't "married" couples as there were on old-school Terra. Women contract with an onagata, and can move between partners their whole lives. Women make choices to further their careers, and eventually apply for the right to have an IVF, when their career is at a good stopping point. Men are mainly superfluous - pleasant coworkers, but ultimately unnecessary, except as sperm donors. Theo knows all of this, but ... she's gotten rather fond of Jen Sar Kiladi, and is considered socially awkward because she can't give him up. He's been her mother's onagata for her whole life. They've lived outside of the Wall, in Efraim, though both her parents work within Delgado at the University, but now that they've moved out, Theo, at fourteen, is a graceless, gasping fish out of water.
She's lost her cat -- realistically, Wall scholars have everything they need, and people simply don't need cats -- she's left with calling Jen Sar not "Father" but "Professor Kiladi," and the worst thing is that her clumsiness - which has been remarked upon and written up since she started growing - is getting worse. The Safeties in Delgado are always watching her, and have judged her a danger to herself and others. Theo's under tremendous pressure at school as well, for pulling down her team's score in physical activities, and some of them are becoming openly resentful. She's under pressure at home, as Kamele is distracted and seems angry, and she and Theo are clashing at every turn. It seems Theo's not good at anything. Her assigned mentor, Marjorie, is supposed to be there to make her life easier, but has been uncomfortably pushy lately, and has suggested that there's a cure for her clumsiness... but that her mother has been keeping it from her.
Not all is well in Kamele's world, either. She is a proud Scholar of Delgado - in an enviable position in her department. She's worked and studied hard for it, but living outside of the Wall has put a crimp in things. Her University department is under scrutiny; it seems there's a major issue of scholarship in its library. Some of the literature there - which students of every race from all over the galaxy come to study - has been altered. Academic dishonesty at that level has the power to disrupt the entire University, leaving reputations irrevocably shattered. Who would do something like that? And, why? Someone is out to discredit everything Delgado stands for -- and Kamele isn't willing to stand for it. But, to save her University and its reputation for scholarship, she has to leave the safety of Delgado to do forensic document research - and remove Theo from both her beloved Professor Kiladi, and from anything remotely resembling a "safe" place.
Kamele and Theo leave the planet together, and together and separately have new and scary experiences which push them beyond the people that they were, into the people they need to become. Meanwhile, "Professor Kiladi," the calm, logical and lovely man they thought they knew is someone a lot more than expected...
Recommended for Fans Of...: SFF with strong female characters, such as SNOW CRASH, by Neal Stephenson; SASSINAK and CRYSTAL SINGER by Anne MccCaffery; THE PRIDE OF CHANUR, C.J. Cherryh; INSIDE OUT, Maria V. Snyder; MUTINEER by Mike Shepherd, and more, which aren't strictly YA, but YA-friendly.
Cover Chatter: Oh, Baen. Can we talk about the covers, here?
There's a definite SFF "look" from some publishers - early Tor, a lot of Baen, some Del Rey -- it's a sort of sameness. Look! Interior starship! Look, people in skin-tight onesies, which we will ostensibly all wear in The Future! Look! Random details like a cat, which was never on the main concourse of the space ship, and a ball, which with the cat never played! Look! Generic Covers With Nothing To Make Them Stand Out!
While I appreciate that the point of a book is the story, such a GOOD story has great pieces to pull from it for a striking cover. Instead of serving up another female - young or older - in a skin-tight space suit to, in sociological terms, simply stand open to the male gaze, why not have the cover model doing something? Theo does tons of stuff - some of it badly - but she's one of the more active characters in space opera who isn't toting a gun. One of the more fascinating things she does is learn to play with a bowli ball. She also dances, skulks around, discovers things, rides in a fast, fast car with her father, and plays with her cat. She is more than a mainly gawky, flat-chested body in a space suit and deserves better than the cover she got.
Authorial Asides: Sharon Lee and Steve Miller started publishing Liaden books in the science-fiction, space-opera, fantasy, romance, espionage, military, and wild west style genres when I was in junior high/high school in the eighties ... and then after three books, the publisher lost interest. Which happens. They got together with another publisher... and they went under, still owing them royalties! Yikes. Thus, they kind of crowd-sourced the funding for a few books, which is kind of a neat thing, and is getting fairly common in many SFF circles -- on a kind of subscription basis, they got through what they thought was going to be a short-ish draft, and soon had the money to put forth nice 42 chapter novel. So, there are fourteen books in the Liaden universe BEFORE this current spin-off, and there's a sequel to Theo's tale, which kind of ties up this "episode" of her life, but ends just when things are getting good. There's a new Liaden novel coming out in a few weeks, too!
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.