And so we reach the end of Balance of Trade. I find I like it better on re-reading than I did the first time through. (A result that, I’m pleased to say, has so far been the case for all the novels I’ve re-read for the first time in this project.)
Part of why I didn’t like it so much the first time was that it didn’t feel to me like the story had concluded, so much as it reached a point where the authors had just stopped telling it. Sharon Lee has said she was surprised how many readers assumed there would be a sequel, but I know for me it seemed obvious; I got to the end of the novel, and it didn’t feel like the story was over.
One aspect of the problem was that so many things happened that felt like they ended up going nowhere. Jethri runs around town looking for depilatory cream, and still doesn’t have any when the novel ends. Bar Jan chel’Gaibin threatens Khat, prompting Jethri’s family and friends to spend chapters considering how best to guard against further action from him, and then he’s never heard from again. And there’s all that backstory about Arin’s family we’re loaded down with, and how much difference does it make to the plot in the end?
On this re-read, knowing where the story ends up, I could see how each of those things contributes to carrying the story along. (Jethri’s search doesn’t produce any depilatory cream, but it does produce Tan Sim. The chel’Gaibin incident results in Grig being on hand when the cargo pod is opened, and his family history results in him having something useful to say about its contents.) But I still feel as if there’s some kind of problem of emphasis, like maybe they’re made to feel too interesting in their own right, so that when they’re dropped after serving their purpose it feels like something useful is being thrown away.
Another aspect of the problem was that usually you can tell where the ending of a story is because it builds to some kind of dramatic climax, and Balance of Trade doesn’t do that. Jethri gets called to be evaluated for his Guild card at about the point in the novel where the stakes would usually start rising, but by that point he’s got enough experience both as a trader and as a Liaden fosterling that it’s – not a formality, quite, but not a major source of tension. Jethri is “on his mettle, but not concerned”, and the reader is not concerned, either. The event that occupies the spot where the climax would usually be is the opening of the cargo pod, which isn’t without interest, but it doesn’t carry the stakes appropriate for the dramatic high point of an entire novel. (Yes, somebody does mention something about the planet blowing up – briefly, in passing, without any lead-in, after the situation has already been resolved. Nobody seems very worried about it, and it goes past so quickly it doesn’t really register.)
I have no idea, now, what to expect from Trade Secret. The first time around, I thought there were some obvious loose ends ready to be picked up in the sequel that was surely coming. Now I’m not sure how many of them the authors see the same way, so I don’t know whether any of them will be picked up or not. I would like, though, to see Jethri meet his family again, and see what they make of the new him. (And it would be interesting, though perhaps not cheering, to see what happens next time Jethri and Iza meet.)