2001’s Scout’s Progress is the sixth book in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden science fiction adventure series.
Aelliana Caylon has endured a short but miserable arranged marriage. Now single again, she is promised by her clan head, the Delm, that she will not be forced into another such marriage. Unfortunately, the Delm’s word is binding only while she remains in power. Her successor can ignore the promise. And it seems that Aelliana’s malevolent brother Ran Eld, will ensure this happens. The Liaden social structure is such that Aelliana has little hope of escape.
But little is not none. Aelliana wields a weapon her corrupt, spiteful brother cannot match: applied mathematics!
As the old saying goes, never get into a game of skill and chance against a mathematician. Bullied into a high-stakes game against would-be cardsharp Vin Sin chel’Mara, Aelliana uses her background in mathematics to emerge a victor. Not only does she retain every penny of her small fortune (the fortune chel’Mara had hoped to win), she now owns her very own star ship.
The ship offers her a possibility of escape … but not a certainty of it. First she must become an accredited pilot, and do so without her brother finding out. Forewarned, he could frustrate any attempt at flight.
Aelliana knows that much. What she does not know is that her brother has made some very bad business deals. Up to his eyeballs in illicit debt, he needs to get his hands on as much money as he can. That means commandeering his sister’s resources. It’s lucky for Aelliana that much of her property is secretly held and outside Ran Eld’s knowledge… or reach.
She has a year to earn her pilot’s papers, a mere year in which to become a pilot. She has a tutor (Master Pilot Daav, a man with serious problems of his own), but ultimately her success, and her freedom, will depend on Aelliana’s own determination and aptitude.
The antagonist is the weakest element in this book . Ran Eld is a two-dimensional bully, an implausible, preening, corrupt thug more suitable for a comic book or an American Presidential election than a novel. It’s the other characters who save the book. Most of them are well drawn and have understandable reasons for working at cross-purposes with each other.
I’ve only read two of the Liaden books (the first and the sixth); those two worked pretty well as standalones. I didn’t feel as if I was missing, to quote Burt Gummer, “critical need-to-know information.” Inclueing was sufficient unto the read.
It would have been very, very easy for the authors to depict Daav, the pilot tutor, as a dashing hero who rescues Aelliana from her terrible family. That would have reduced her to a mere damsel in distress. What Daav does do is give Aelliana an opportunity. She is the one who must embrace the opportunity and overcome a lifetime of emotional abuse. Abuse that has half-convinced her that she will fail at anything she attempts. It’s satisfying that she wins through.
A pleasant read; I recommend it.
1: Well, the worldbuilding also seems a bit odd. I would not expect interstellar trade to resemble the coconut and pearl trade of the old-time South Seas, carried on by hand-to-mouth enterprises running decrepit tramp freighters. Of course, vast, impersonal shipping corporations don’t offer quite the same scope for DRAMA. Unless of course they are the evil corporations oppressing the plucky small traders.