This book is part of the following collections: Dragon Variation omnibus, Korval’s Legacy Collection, and Pilot’s Choice.

First off, the central conflict is a romance. There’s a mystery as well but that’s clearly a subplot and doesn’t begin until halfway through the book. Also, the heroes aren’t detectives and are definitely not trying to solve the mystery.

The hero is an alien a Liaden who looks like a human except that he is shorter and has golden skin and violet eyes. However, the customs of the aliens, called Liadens, are somewhat different from humans. Most of their relationships revolve around Melant’i which is the status of the person at any given time. Every Liaden is also part of a clan and is expected to be extremely loyal to one’s clan. The heroine is a human Terran woman.

Er Thom yos’Galan is a Master Trader in the prestigious but small clan Korval. His mother Petrella is determined that Er Thom should start producing children to the small clan and has arranged a contract-marriage for him. Even though the contract-marriage lasts only as long as the child is born (and the child is apparently put into a foster family) and then the partners can go their separate ways, Er Thom is strongly against it. He can only think about one woman: the human linguist Anne Davis who was his lover three years ago. So, he decides to return to her so that he can finally put her out of his mind.

Scholar Anne Davis works in a university as a linguistics professor. Her plate is pretty full: she has her classes and her research, and on top of that she’s a single mother to her half-Liaden son Shan. Even though she and Er Thom had parted ways three years ago, she still misses him and thinks about him often. So, when Er Thom appears on her doorstep, she’s at first delighted. However, Er Thom is shocked and dismayed to meet his son whom he didn’t know even existed. He insist that the head of the clan Korval must see Shan and take him into the clan as is proper. Anne is reluctant to travel to Liaden where she would be the only human on the planet. Oh, and she has brown skin.

Their romance is quite different from what I’m used to and I really liked that. Both are adults with their own commitments and duties. They already know each other and now have their child to consider, too. They genuinely like each other and aren’t a bickering couple at all. (For once!) Some of their problems are cultural misunderstandings instead of simply not talking about their problems. Anne is also very honorable and she doesn’t want to be a burden to Er Thom. She knows that having a Terran wife could damage Er Thom’s career and personal standing. Also, the Liaden value pilots and apparently every person has to be a pilot before he or she can marry. Anne isn’t a pilot even though her mother was.

Er Thom is enjoyably different from most romance heroes: he’s polite, thoughtful, considerate, and very affectionate towards Anne and Shan. He tries his best to see things from Anne’s perspective. He’s also very loyal to the head of the clan who is also his foster brother and best friend. But when it’s called for, he can make quick decisions and stick with them. He’s in fact the first romance hero I’ve read about whom I wouldn’t mind dating in real life.

The clan head Daav is another interesting character. He seems to be quite unorthodox in his ways and many of the more conservative members of his family, such as his mother, aunt, and sister, pressure him to follow traditions. He’s also not married and has a pleasure-love instead.

I liked all of the characters. Yes, even Er Thom’s grouchy old mother who pushed for the contract-marriage and didn’t even want to meet her only grandson. What’s a story without a villain? 😉

The Liaden culture seems to be highly hierarchical. Everyone has his or her place and is expected to behave accordingly. Even the five-years-old boy we meet bows, speaks softly, and walks instead of running. They also have healers and wizards but we don’t get to know much about them. The healers can take away painful memories but only do it with the consent of the person involved. However, Er Thom’s mother wants to send him to the healers so that he can forget about Anne and marry properly.

It still seems to me that the Liaden culture is designed to make many people miserable. The children are reared in foster families and contract-marriages can apparently be imposed on by other people. Both Er Thom and his bride-to-be were against the marriage. On the other hand, being a pleasure-love didn’t carry a stigma at all, which was a pleasant surprise.

The Liadens have two types of marriage: the contract-marriage which lasts only as long as a child is born and lifemating which lasts beyond death. Alas, a lifemating bond reared its ugly head here. However, it’s apparently not the usual kind (imposed on the unfortunate couple by fate, gods, magic, whatever even before they are born) but instead it’s a product of choice by both of them. I still found it quite cheesy, though.

Each chapter starts with a quotation that often illuminates Liaden customs, relations between Liaden and humans (whom the Liaden consider to be very crude), or some point in Liaden history. For example:

Melant’i – A Liaden word denoting the status of a person within a given situation. For instance, one person may fulfill several roles: Parent, spouse, child, mechanic, thodelm. The shifting winds of circumstance, or ‘necessity,’ dictate from which role the person will act this time. They will certainly always act honorably, as defined within a voluminous and painfully detailed code of behavior, referred to simply as ‘The Code.’

To a Liaden, melant’i is more precious than rubies, a cumulative, ever-changing indicator of his place in the universal pecking order. A person of high honor, for instance, is referred to as “a person of melant’i,” whereas a scoundrel—or a Terran—may be dismissed with “he has no melant’i.”

Melant’i may be the single philosophical concept from which all troubles, large and small, between Liad and Terra spring.
—From “A Terran’s Guide to Liad”

The book has several POV character: Anne, Er Thom, Daav, and a few others.

I hope the other books don’t succumb to more traditional romances, though.