Those already familiar with the Liaden Universe will likely find ‘Necessity’s Child’ a welcome addition to the canon. Co-authors Sharon Lee and Steve Miller deliver a slice of life on the planet of Surebleak, a tale laced with political intrigue, lost memories, uncertain survival, and the uneasy beginnings of cross-cultural interaction.
Despite the novel’s tagline, “A man without a past caught between powerful Clan Korval and secretive kompani,” the majority of the narrative is spent on children of different cultures—Kezzi of the Bedel and Syl Vor of the Liaden. The man in the tagline, Rys, is interesting in his own right, but the children steal the show. Their drastically different worlds, their unlikely friendship, and the way their friendship will eventually affect the rest of Surebleak becomes the lodestone of ‘Necessity’s Child.’ And yet, the book’s end focuses more on Rys than Syl Vor and Kezzi. The story feels a bit lopsided, as if there had been a tug-of-war between protagonists. Kezzi and Syl Vor clearly won, yet Rys is mistakenly awarded the rope.
The tagline aside, the novel’s fault perhaps lies in two areas. The first fault line is the puppet character. The way in which Rys handles his injuries, his amnesia and his alienation from his self will cause readers to turn pages as they search for his identity along with him. Yet Lee and Miller’s portrayal of him does not spark much empathy – or at least not enough to counterbalance the level of empathy that the child protagonists generate. Rys seems a prop, much like the mechanical appendages he acquires. His sudden spring from self-alienation to self-knowledge, combined with the way the novel wraps things up, seems as strange as if one of his metal limbs sprang up, announced its name, and ran off to join society.
The second fault line is the lack of elaboration. The narrative leaves much unsaid, even at the end. The authors perhaps fell into the series trap of being so comfortable within their creation that they underestimated how much information a new reader should be fed. Newcomers will develop the uneasy suspicion that if only they had read some of the previous novels in the Liaden Universe, that context would provide more clarity, not only in Rys’ thread of the story, but all around.
Such a suspicion is not necessarily true, since Korval.com lists ‘Necessity’s Child’ as one of the “novels that may be read with no prior reading in the [Liaden] Universe.” Still, unlike some others ('Sorceror's Plague,' the sixth book in the world of the Forelands, is an excellent example), it is not viable as a stand-alone novel, and those new to this particular world would be better off starting at or at least near the beginning, with ‘Agent of Change’ or ‘Crystal Soldier.’
The first few chapters of ‘Necessity’s Child’ presume familiarity with Liaden and may have readers confusedly rereading paragraphs for a better grasp of the context. The world’s background and surroundings are also given the barest outline, leaving much to be filled in by the reader’s imagination or memory from previous novels. This would usually be a grievous error for an other-world novel, but perhaps not so much for the seventeenth book in a world-builder series. Those already steeped in Liaden might even have found such elucidation repetitive.
Fortunately, even for newcomers determined to read this addition to the Liaden Universe before picking up any of the others, ‘Necessity’s Child’ should begin to sit more comfortably somewhere between chapters four and six as the characters become familiar. As well, the high formality to which the main characters are expected to adhere gives this space opera an Old World feel, something strangely recognizable in the midst of the novel’s unbalancing introduction to Liaden. Other elements of the novel tantalize: the Liaden family’s psychic tree, the constant references to an unacknowledged home world, the ship-less, gypsy-like ‘kompani,’ unfathomable technology, and hints that past and future books were not and will not be bound to one planet, but explore the farther reaches of the universe.
Unfortunately, neither the familiar nor the tantalizing elements of this novel can overcome its need for more developed backdrop and context. It rests too much on the laurels of its predecessors. Again, those already steeped in the Liaden Universe may be fully satisfied with this newest addition to it, but everyone else had best put this particular book on ice.