Centuries in the past, mankind fought a seemingly unbeatable adversary from sector to sector across the Spiral Arm until the war ground to a standstill and the Enemy withdrew. Believing that they had won, the citizens of the galaxy rebuilt. The Inner Worlds, which had escaped the worst of the war's ravages, became even more insular, while the Rim worlds adopted a free and easy way with law and order. Now, hundreds of years after their withdrawal, the Enemy is back - and this time they'll be satisfied with nothing less than the extinction of the galaxy.
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The Liaden Universe is a full and complex one. This tale starts with the original Cantra yos Phelium, and M Jela and his Tree. Yes, the tree is a character in this story as much as any other character. I will say that I enjoyed this book much more in audio than in print, which I don't often say! The narration is excellent, because it isn't over-dramatic, but is just enough to differentiate between characters.
This download also has a conversation between the narrator and Steve Miller. Don't skip it! It gives a lot of insight into what goes into narrating an audiobook, as well as learning a bit about how Steve and Sharon write their books. As well as the good news that a sequel to Balance of Trade is coming!
I want to say either I liked this book or I disliked it, but really, it was a bit bland, and had neither any Big Ideas nor characters memorable enough to leave an impression. Filled the time but left me with no desire to read the rest of the 11+ book series. Evidently, this book introduces plots and characters who recur throughout the series and is something of a prequel.
The Shereika want to wipe out all life in the universe, and humanity is fighting a losing war against them. Humankind has bred people to be soldiers, slaves, and assassins, creating a fairly traditional aliens-light space opera universe. Even the Shereika are actually genetically engineered humans. Humans are losing the war and falling back from the spiral arm. The Shereika are mostly an off-stage threat in this book, intergalactic bogeymen who have listening devices and agents everywhere, but don't show up in their planet-killing ships... yet.
The POV alternates between two main characters. M. Jela Granthor's Guard is a genetically-engineered soldier who, while fighting the Shereika on a distant uninhabited planet, happened upon a group of sentient trees and deduced that they had somehow fended off the Shereika. So he carts a tree around for the rest of the book. On a special assignment from the military, he runs across Cantra yos'Phelium, a generically-engineered assassin who's now the solo captain of a "dark trader" - i.e., a smuggler. The two of them end up rescuing a genetically-engineered slave, Dulsey, and taking her to a mysterious man known as the Uncle who runs some sort of free colony for other slaves like Dulsey, out in the beyond.
Crystal Soldier has a bit of a Firefly vibe to it, and also reminded me of "The Phoenix in Flight" by Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge, another first novel by an authorial duo in a sprawling epic space saga, and another one I found moderately entertaining but just too paint-by-numbers to really get invested in what happens next. I don't know what it says about my reading tastes that star-destroying mega-battlecruisers no longer intrigue me. I loved Niven and Saberhagen back in the day, but 11 books of this just make me think of better or more interesting books on my TBR list.
So, this was good SF, not great SF, and if you are looking for a long series maybe it will grab you more than it grabbed me.
There is a long interview at the end of this audiobook between the author and the narrator which I found pretty interesting, since the narrator, Kevin T. Collins, answers lots of questions you might have about how audiobooks (particularly SF audiobooks) are put together.