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Balance of Trade

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.

Balance of Trade. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
Original publication: 2004
Current availability: ebook

Shannon Appelcline established a useful goal in his series of reviews that have previously appeared in this section of Critics’ Corner. However, there are only a limited number of books that truly have the sort of direct connection to Traveller that Shannon used in choosing which books to review. I felt that there were more than a few stories that, while having no discernable direct connection with Traveller, nevertheless felt—at least to me—like they could happen in a Traveller universe, even if not the Official one. The Liaden Universe, for which this book is a good entry point (one of several, actually), is a set of books that meet my criteria.

It should be noted that this novel is an expansion of an earlier story of the same name by the same authors. That story ends where this story can be said to truly begin, when the main character accepts an apprenticeship with a Liaden Master Trader.


It is impossible to synopsize the story—or rather, stories, as there are several threads that only slowly draw together—in a reasonable amount of space. In (totally inadequate) summation, the central character, Jethri Gobelyn, goes from apprentice trader on his family’s ship, trading on the edges of Terran space and occasionally to the edges of Liaden space, to a fully-qualified Junior Trader, able to treat with both Terrans and Liadens. Along the way, he learns much of Liaden culture, but is able to solve—or at least catalyze solutions for—several purely Liaden problems, by drawing on his own nature and his Terran-shaped inclinations to do so.


The story is quite ‘dense’—Lee and Miller have managed to get quite a lot into this book, but it’s most definitely not a difficult read. Various aspects of the universe are revealed as the threads develop, progressively building an image not of a universe that exists for the sake of the story, but one which exists in its own right, and the story is merely one of the things that happens there.

Lee and Miller, for the most part, have avoided blatant infodumping; the information about Liaden culture is presented through Jethri’s efforts as a non-Liaden to learn about and move within Liaden society, and the Terran culture that Jethri is from is presented through his efforts to explain his cultural baggage to the Liadens he is associating with, and to overcome it so as not to embarrass himself or offend others while ‘on Liaden turf’.

I should note that I do not recommend reading this aboard a train or bus unless you plan on getting off at the last stop—the story is absorbing enough that on two occasions, I missed my station!

Why is it Traveller?

The environment, for lack of a better word, is very suggestive of Traveller’s ‘frontier’ or ‘pocket empire’, in much the same vein as the universe of Vatta’s War. There is trade, but little suggestion of an ‘overgovernment’, and virtually none at all of organized war fleets. Liaden culture is presented as generally homogeneous, but not uniform (some worlds are considered more conservative than others); Terran—or, more accurately, Terran-derived—cultures are suggested as being more diverse.

The experienced Traveller player will also get the sense of it being a ‘small ship’ universe, which this reviewer feels is a better universe for Traveller play. A Traveller Merchant Prince campaign could easily find itself comfortable in the Liaden Universe, and there are strong suggestions that part of the duties of the Liaden Scouts are a good match with the exploration and survey functions of the Official Traveller Universe’s Imperial Interstellar Scout Service (and other suggestions that they also serve the function of the Imperial Research Stations with respect to ‘Befores’). They also seem to serve as a sort of ‘neighborhood watch’, passing information as necessary to ships or clans when changing social conditions may present risk for the unknowing.

Unlike much SF, technology doesn’t really play a key part in the story, except for where ‘Befores’ are involved—and the development of the story makes it clear that the technology in question maps most closely—in the social/semantic sense—to the Official Traveller Universe’s ‘Ancients’ technology. Outside of that, the technology portrayed might even be considered lower tech (TL8-10) in the normal Traveller milieu. In the general case, the mechanics of technology aren’t explained; things like the interstellar drive or gravity control are just assumed as part of the environment, just as for the typical reader of this review, computers, cell phones, and electricity are all just assumed as part of the environment.

It should be emphasized that Balance of Trade is merely a good entry point into the universe; it does not tell the reader everything about it—but it forms a good ground for building on when the reader continues to the other books set in this universe—a continuation that is strongly encouraged.