Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals.

NY: Baen, 2016.

I discovered the multidimensional Liaden universe more than twenty years ago, of which this volume is (I think) the nineteenth adventure. I’ve read the first dozen or more twice — once as they were published, and again by order of internal chronology (though it isn’t actually that simple). In fact, the action this time takes place at more or less the same time as the story in Dragon Ship and Dragon in Exile (and, apparently, according to the endnotes, in the next volume to come).

We first met Shan yos’Galen and his now-lifemate, Priscilla Mendoza, in Conflict of Honor, when he was a ship’s captain, as well as Master Trader for Clan Korval and a Healer besides, and she was a newly-hired cargomaster. A lot has happened since then, and now Priscilla has taken over the captaincy while Shan concentrates on trade. And trade is imperative since Korval has been exiled from the old home world of Liad and is now in the lengthy process of establishing itself on the aptly named world of Surebleak. Things are getting tight and new mercantile routes must be established if Korval is to maintain its position in the universe. Shan is the father of seventeen-year-old Padi, who is also his Apprentice Trader and a Pilot-in-training, both of which positions she yearns for more than anything. Her father wonders, though, whether she might also eventually become a Healer, whether she likes it or not. Alternating chapters follow the pair through their exploratory journey to re-establish the clan’s trade empire, opposed at numerous points by the Department of the Interior — Korval’s unsuccessful attempt to destroy which was the cause of their flight from Liad. The authors like to get into the everyday nitty-gritty of their characters’ lives and careers and that’s very much the case here, with a fascinating view of how interstellar trade among highly disparate cultures actually works.

Meanwhile, in the other plotline — because this series is never satisfied with telling only one story at a time — we hark back to Admiral Bunter, a newly sentient AI-ship sort of cobbled together in an emergency by young Theo Waitley (now captain of her own very old sentient ship). Theo arranged for a Mentor to go and “educate” Admiral Bunter, who isn’t very stable and is therefore dangerous. That means Tolly Jones, one of the best Mentors available, though he had been hiding out from his painful past as an ordinary Korval security man, There’s also Pilot Tocohl, another form of AI (mobile this time, like the Korval butler, Jeeves, who is actually her, um. “father”). And there’s Tolly’s ex-patrol partner, Hazenthull, a very large soldier/explorer. She’s also a reformed/retrained Yxtrang, which is . . . tell you what, you need to just read to read the books. All of them.

The Liad universe is not a tidy place, nor do the books exactly adhere to the structure of a series. There are multiple ongoing story arcs, and they overlap, and a background character in one may be the focus of the action in another. But this is space opera of the very highest quality and the best way to experience it is simply to take a deep breath and jump in. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

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