Near the end of last school year I stumbled across Podiobooks, which are basically authors podcasting free audio versions of their books, dubbed “podiobooks” (I love how the term is a portmanteau of two other portmanteaus: podcast (iPod+broadcast) and audiobook (audio+book)). That summer, since I do a lot of solitary outdoor work, I decided that doing some ear-reading would be a good alternative to talking to myself to pass the time.
One of the series I picked was Nathan Lowell’s Trader Tales series (or maybe Trader’s Tales or Traders’ Tales—Podiobooks labels it Trader Tales so that’s what I’m calling it for the sake of consistency). What drew me to this series? Why, the fact that it was one of the most highly-rated series on the site. Because playing it safe is always more enjoyable than taking a chance, right? Anyway, I also picked it because it was a longer series and would last me longer than some others would.
Trader Tales is a six-book long narrative chronicling the life of Ishmael Horatio Wang as he goes from a grunt on a spacefaring trade ship to the eventual owner of his own company. That’s a bit of a spoiler, yes, but the titles make it clearly obvious. Each of the six books (Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share) make it obvious from the get-go that Ishmael is going places and the focused is moved from the “what” to the “when and how.”
The story starts with the death of Ishmael’s mother, a professor at a university on his home world. Unfortunately for Ishmael, since he’s eighteen years old and living at the university with his mother is now out of the question, he’s forced offworld. He’s able to solve his problems by taking a job aboard the Solar Clipper Lois McKendrick. There, he starts forming a kinship with his crewmates and quickly grows to love life in the “deep dark” and begins to learn the ins and outs of trading. The overall story can be split pretty clearly in half. The first three books focus on Ishmael as a young man aboard the Lois McKendrick, and the later three books focus on him as an older up-and-coming officer. These later three books have less connectivity between them, as a fairly notable timeskip occurs between each and Ishmael changes ships and crew in each, but they still sort of form their own arc. For that reason, I’m going to be talking about the plots of two halves of the series separately.
The first half of the story (Quarter Share, Half Share, and Full Share) has a solid plot, though the plot is actually fairly strange. For the first two or three books, there really isn’t any sort of antagonist or even much of an antagonistic force. The conflict is very low-risk and it feels more like a “slice-of-life” type of story. In fact, it’s not until the the end of the second book that anything even really starts going wrong for Ishmael. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s poorly written or unenjoyable. Even with the lack of major conflict, there are a lot of solid story and character arcs that are built upon in later books, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. In fact, the first few books were probably my favorites.
Instead of major conflict, we’re treated to Ishmael working in Lois’s galley, forming bonds with members of the crew, and forming a freelance trading partnership with his first and closest friend, Pip. During this, Ishmael comes across as a bit of a golden boy, turning the ship upside down as he shows them his outsider way of doing things, as all the other crew members come from shipping families and he’s the only “land rat” on the crew. It’s frequent to the point of being noticeable, but not to the point of being irritating. Ishmael isn’t a genius or messiah; he just has a different perspective, is well-educated, and is very, very lucky. There are three main story arcs through these first three books. The first is about Ishmael and Pip organizing and launching a union for independent trading on the ship. The second is Ishmael’s mission to become rated in all four disciplines (I have, unfortunately forgotten the actual term used in the book—basically, all jobs on a ship fall under one of these four disciplines). The third is Ishmael’s developing relationships with three ladies: Beverly, Brillo, and Diane.
These arcs run throughout the first three books before ultimately coming to a conclusion at the end of the third. The fourth book opens with Ishmael fresh out of an officer academy. At this point, the entire cast changes, and much of the tone of the series does as well. In the first half, Ishmael had nothing to lose. It became clear fairly quickly that he could get things done and therefore had some job security, he was making friends where he previously had few to none, and he was blessed with plenty of luck on top of that. All responsibilities beyond his job were of his own choosing. Double Share throws all that out the window, starting from the point that Ishmael graduates only around the middle of his class at the academy. After all, perspective can only do so much, and while he has a sharp mind, he lacks the life experience others in his position would have grown up with. From this point on, everything becomes an uphill battle for Ishmael. The Lois was a healthy ship with a wonderful family of people, but Ishmael doesn’t end up so lucky when he finishes his education and returns to the deep dark. His employer sees he has potential and tests it by putting him in high-risk situations where he has everything to lose. When he manages to improve how one ship runs, he’s made captain of the worst ship in the fleet. When he turns it around into one of the best, the company fires him to encourage him to start his own shipping company (they have their own reasons for doing so).
I could go into the individual plots of the second half of the series (consisting of Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share) more, but they aren’t as connected as the first three books and are consequently harder to briefly summarize. These books also don’t require me to explain a lack of antagonists since they each have fairly tangible ones, so I think I’ll leave the plot summary as is and let you experience the story yourself. I will say, however, that I felt the story of Ishmael Wang came to a satisfying conclusion. His journey obviously isn’t over, but for now, it’s enough. Lowell has expressed a desire to write other stories set in the same universe and has mentioned that we may see more of Ishmael and his old crewmates, and I’m personally looking forward to that.
The series also has some very strong characters—at least in the first half. The characters in the second half are pretty strong, but they only get about a book or two of development each, and just don’t quite stand out as much as the characters in the first half do. There are some standouts, of course, but almost all of my favorite characters were from the first half. In fact, I was incredibly disappointed to see them go, and just a little angry that absolutely none of them even made cameos in the second half past an offhand mention. The development of all characters is done well, though. All the romantic relationships (as well as the non-romantic relationships, for that matter) feel like they develop naturally, and Ishmael’s mother is even posthumously developed through Ishmaels thoughts and reflections.
It’s worth mentioning that the entire series feels very true and real. The universe is slowly developed and pretty much everything introduced evokes a “sure, I’ll buy that” reaction instead of a “this is clearly fantasy” reaction. I don’t know how scientifically accurate it is, but it feels like it was well-researched, which is the part that really matters. All the characters also feel like real people, and whenever something painful happens to Ishmael, the reader is left with a sort of “well, that’s life” feeling.
But moving past the writing itself, I want to talk about the audiobook format. That is, after all, how I listened to it. So it can be a good book, but if it’s a terrible audiobook, it won’t make much difference. What’s worth noting is that the story was written specifically with audiobooks in mind, so it should be great as an audiobook, right?
First of all, Lowell’s reading is great. Every podiobooker (is that a term? It is now) has their own ways of doing the reading. Patrick E. McLean, for example, does imitations of all his characters’ voices. Philippa Ballentine enlists other podiobookers so that her novels have full voice acting. The approach Lowell takes is the simple approach: he simply reads it. It’s a first-person narrative, which lends itself to this approach well (the narrative and Ishmael’s voice are one and the same), but for other characters he doesn’t do much: just barely tweaks his tone of voice enough that we can tell it’s a character other than Ishmael who’s speaking. It’s barely noticeable and doesn’t draw attention.
The story is also read very well. Lowell puts plenty of emotion into the reading, and if he ever stumbles, it’s rarely. He inflects properly where he needs to inflect, and will often do things like yawn as Ishmael talks about how tired he is or pause as the a revelation sinks into the characters’ minds. It’s just a small things like that, but they draw you into the story just a little bit more, and I appreciated them.
The production of the audio files is top-notch. This is not something that you would usually look for, but all it takes is one bad experience (sound not coming through both headphones, issues with volume, background noise, etc.) to make you appreciate it. The music chosen is enjoyable, and always fades in and out smoothly. One thing that I really liked about the first two or three books was that, at the beginning of each episode (not chapter; each episode contains several chapters), there is a brief “previously on” sort of segment that gave you a few passages of a sentence or two from the previous episode. It was unobtrusive and helped notify you if you had somehow gotten your files out of order (since mp3 players can be a bit wonky that way) or helped you find your place if you had stopped listening in the middle of an episode. I don’t know why Lowell dropped these later, but I really wish he hadn’t. It was something I had not seen in a podiobook up until that point, and I really appreciated it.
All in all, I give Traders Tales a glowing recommendation. It’s a fascinating book with a solid story and Lowell performs a great read of it. If you’re looking into podiobooks this is a great place to start. Is it the best story I’ve ever read (ear-read?)? Well…probably not. I haven’t really mentioned many issues with the story. I really don’t have many issues with the story, but I was listening to it out of the corner of my ear (that’s a phrase now) as I worked. If I were to truly look hard, I could probably find all sorts of flaws with it like any jaded critic worth their salt.
However, Nathan Lowell is a small-time author, and as an aspiring author myself, I don’t think it would be beneficial to anyone to nitpick. I do Lowell no service by deterring people from his work, I do all you readers no service by asking you to read about a series you’ve never heard of and then saying “by the way, it’s not worth it,” and I do myself no service by doing nobody any service. The fact remains that, for such a small-time author, Lowell’s work is fantastic. I don’t have a giant pool of podiobooks to compare it to, but the Trader Tales series were some of the best I heard and lasted me the longest.
So please, check out Trader Tales, especially if you’re interested in some entrepreneurship as the first books in the series give a lot of insight into the process. I believe that Lowell is currently working on re-issuing the series and possibly releasing physical versions of the books. For now, at least, the podiobooks are available for free, no strings attached, at the link I provided at the beginning of the post. They’re very accessible books, even if you don’t like sci-fi, so give them a listen. If you enjoy them, donate. Or don’t and live with the guilt, I guess. Support this wonderful small-time author by listening to his work and telling your friends.