It’s just about time for the latest work from two of my favorite science fiction writers to hit the bookstores. The 20th book in Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s expansive Liaden Universe series, The Gathering Edge, hits bookstores on May 2. The publisher, Baen, released an electronic ARC version early, which I’ve read, and I can say with confidence that this is the book a lot of Liaden fans have been waiting for.

Like many long-running series, the Liaden Universe doesn’t have a strictly linear progression, and sometimes vagaries of the publishing business lead to arcs focusing on particular characters having to be back-burnered for a while. This was the case for the adventures of young Theo Waitley, star of the books Fledgling, Saltation, Ghost Ship, and Dragon Ship. After Dragon Ship left off, four more books and over three more years went by while the plot in other areas of the setting had to catch up. But The Gathering Edge finally brings Theo Waitley and her crew back around again, so we can at last find out what happened next.

At the moment, Theo and crew—and the self-aware starship Bechimo—are hiding out in an out-of-the-way pocket of space, recuperating from a series of events in which ship and crew were attacked by agents of the nefarious Department of the Interior. The DOI is a shadowy agency bent on bringing down Clan Korval—the extended family to whom Theo recently discovered she is related by blood—and on performing other mischiefs in the galaxy at large. After these attacks, Korval has asked Theo to return to the planet of Surebleak, its new base of operations, for safety’s sake. Theo has yet to make up her mind whether she’s going to comply with that request.

Meanwhile, random objects have started appearing in that space pocket with alarming frequency—including entire spacecraft from the old universe that Liadens and Terrans fled hundreds or thousands of years ago. One of these spacecraft carries two survivors from an ancient military caste, who were dispatched with a secret mission in the waning days of that universe’s collapse. Their arrival further complicates Theo’s dilemma: do they go back to Surebleak, or should Bechimo and their crew continue on their own?

Over the rest of the book, Theo and her crew get to know the two new arrivals and vice versa, and stop at a busy spaceport for some repairs and resupply while they settle on what to do. Along the way, Theo encounters an old mentor in a spot of trouble, and has to decide how to handle that and other related matters that come up.

The Gathering Edge is a character study in how Theo and her crew get along, and sets up up events and circumstances to be addressed in later books (presumably including the next one, Neogenesis, which is due out early next year). In some ways it serves as a “breather,” between the action-packed Dragon Ship and the next book to feature Theo, as well as between the action-packed Alliance of Equals and the next Liaden book as a whole. But as with every Liaden book, it’s anything but boring. Theo and the other characters are all well-rounded, interesting people, and simply watching them interact is a large part of the fun of any Liaden book.

It also makes a good introduction to the universe for anyone just getting started. There’s just one story arc to follow (with a handful of brief, seemingly unrelated scenes pertaining to other characters), important backstory elements are explained along the way, and there’s plenty of time to get to know the various people on the ship and then delve back into earlier books to learn more about their stories. There are a number of other books in the series that might also make good starting points—but if you should see this one in your local store or library, you won’t be completely lost if you pick it up.

Long-time fans who’ve waited for ages to see what happened after the ending of Dragon Ship will finally have some of the answers they were looking for—though from the standpoint of seeing how various other characters react to recent developments elsewhere, the next book should be even better. I’ll definitely be looking forward to getting my hands on that one when its EARC becomes available around the end of the year.

For now, whether you’re a new fan or old, The Gathering Edge is definitely worth reading. Maybe I’ll go back and read it yet again while I wait for the next one.

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