An rpg supplement may have a number of possible agendas. It could exist to expand the world, outlining new places to go and new people to meet. It could expand character options, giving players new ideas for PC backgrounds and new mechanical widgets to play around with. It could pitch story ideas, giving the GM the tools to create new adventures. It could just be a thinly veiled fantasy fiction, advancing the settings lore, but existing mostly to be read by people who are invested in the ongoing plot.
Or it could be like Secret Societies of Barsaive and attempt all of the above at once. What's astonishing about this book, however, is that it actually does a pretty decent job at servicing multiple goals at once. It's a jack-of-all-trades supplement, and even though it is still proverbially the master of none, it comes closer to that mastery than you'd have any reasonable right to expect. It's probably the best Earthdawn book since Parlainth and an overall pleasure to read.
"Secret Societies" is an interesting theme for a book because it can (and does) mean just about anything, but the one thing it definitely always means is "a group of people doing shit that's so interesting they have to keep it a secret." There's occasionally some unfortunate overlap between the organization (these spies work for Throal, these other spies work for the Blood Wood or the two separate groups that assassinate people for their dark patron, but with slightly different methods and goals), but even with the redundancies, they're all people who are doing things that would lead to all hell breaking lose if the wrong people found out about it. And sometimes the PCs want to stop the wrong people and sometimes the PCs are the wrong people, but either way, the campaigns practically write themselves.
And that's what this is, really. A slim book with 14 different mini-campaigns. The super racist worshipers of the god of slavery can be recurring antagonists (if you can handle how uncomfortably like the KKK they are - the metaphor is really on the nose). Or the PCs can get involved in the Liferock Rebellion and just be situated right at the center of any number of metaplot events as they take the fight to the Theran Empire. It's possible that the book might be too versatile for its own good - if one of the potential campaigns hooks you, you're only going to have about a half-dozen pages of material to work with - but if you're a newcomer wondering what to do with Earthadawn, or an old GM, looking for something new to do with Earthdawn, you're going to have a lot of options.
The weirdest thing about Secret Societies of Barsaive - and I'm calling it "weird" because I can't really say that it's either good or bad - is the way it seems to push "espionage thriller" as a fantasy campaign model. A lot of the adventure hooks revolve around learning things you're not really supposed to know, or stopping your enemies from doing the same, or around uncovering moles or safeguarding your organization's operational security to keep it from being compromised. It doesn't get deep into spycraft, but it's clear that it's supposed to be a concern.
The best thing about The Secret Societies of Barsaive, at least from my perspective as a guy who's been following along with Earthdawn from its earliest supplements, is the way that it indirectly fleshes out some of Barsaive's neglected locations. This is probably the closest we're going to get to seeing the inner workings of Kratas or Iopos, barring an adventure that sneaks in a little more setting in the background (as has been known to happen).
It wasn't ideal to learn about these locations from the perspective of their espionage and law enforcement organizations, but the relevant sections were more generous with information than they needed to be. I especially liked learning about the complex politics of the magically talented Denairastas clan. They work well both as villains and as a potential source of PCs in a morally grey palace politics game. It's a shame they never got a full book.
The only thing I didn't like about this book was the framing device. There always has to be one, and this time it was a series of reports made by Theran spies. Those guys are the absolute worst, always arrogantly deciding to encourage the dark cults to cause trouble for Barsaive. At least we didn't get any slavery apologism this time, though.
Ukss Contribution: There was something to love in every chapter of this book, but I guess I have to choose one. I'll go with Little Dreams, the toy company that acts as cover for Throal's weapon smuggling operations. I'll probably have the different strands of their business dovetail a bit more (weaponized toys!), but even unembellished, the juxtaposition charmed me.