Review: Protector, by C.J. Cherryh

This is the fourteenth – yes, fourteenth! – book in the Foreigner series, following the interpreter-ambassador Bren Cameron on his adventures through the Atevi’s world of deadly intrigue.

I confess that I’ve been waiting for Cherryh to pick up again on a plot thread left hanging in book 6, and it’s not like she’s forgotten about it. Indeed, the looming return of that plot thread is on everyone’s mind, but we did not get it in this book. I found that very disappointing in the previous book, but I did not mind it so much this time because the rest of the story was so engaging.

It would seem that young Cajeiri (son of the Atevi ruler) is finally going to have his felicitous ninth birthday, and to celebrate it, three of his human friends will be coming down from the space station to join him. Certainly, things have been tense, but it looks like, for once, he will have a nice smooth birthday.

Of course, not everyone wants it to come off that smoothly. He is a ripe target for assassination, as is his uncle, his great-grandmother, and Bren himself. Will the outlawed shadow guild actually make an attempt at all of them? Or are they unknowingly biting off more than they can chew?

It’s good old Atevi politics and assassination plots at their finest. If you’re an old Atevi hand, fluent in Ragi, and clear on your man’chi, go ahead and grab this one. It’s a worthy installment. I won’t say that it ends on a cliffhanger, but I’ve got a pretty good idea what the next book is about. Plus, Cherryh has hinted that the long-delayed plot thread from book 6 might be making a return soon. Can I hope?

If all of this is new to you, I direct you back to the first book, Foreigner. I admit it’s a bit of a slow start, but it sets the world off in the right direction. Think of the TV show Downton Abbey but with aliens and deadly politics.

Downton Abbey via Science Fiction

DowntonAbbeyI’ve recently started watching Downton Abbey — I’m only on season 1, so please no spoilers — and I was trying to explain it to my wife. She wanted to know what it was about and why it appealed to me so much. Certainly, it’s a fine show, and I could have talked about it in specifics, but instead, I fell back on our common language of science fiction.

You see, it reminds me a lot of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series with Bren Cameron and his Atevi household. In Downton Abbey, a sudden change has brought about a new heir to the title and the estate, but he’s not an aristocrat. Instead, he’s a middle-class lawyer, mostly interested in contracts and such, much like how Bren is more of a linguist than a politician.

Watching this new heir adapt to a life with servants and formal dinners was a lot like watching Bren adapt to his Atevi household, full of servants, bodyguards, and more potential social gaffes than priceless relics.

DowagerCountessThen there’s the Dowager Countess, who fits the mold of the Dowager-Aiji Ilisidi almost perfectly, right down to the cane. She’s proud, opinionated, and not accustomed to losing.

As for the household staff, they don’t match well with the Atevi characters, apart from the fact that they all have surprising back stories and secrets. However, I was able to describe the worst of them, Thomas, as a like Mr. Morden from Babylon 5, except without a conscience. At least Morden believed he was serving a higher purpose, whereas Thomas is simply selfish and evil.

Now, if anything, the development of ideas was the reverse of this. The stratified society of British aristocracy came long before Cherryh’s Atevi, and it may have very well served as inspiration for her setting. However, both she and I have grown up more on science fiction than on history, so I find myself relating new tales back to “the classics” of Star Trek, Star Wars, the Foundation trilogy, and so on.

Am I the only one? Have you ever run across some mainstream story that mostly reminded you of your sci-fi/fantasy roots?

Review: Intruder, by C.J. Cherryh

This is the thirteenth book in her Foreigner series about Bren Cameron on the world of the Atevi.

I had been waiting eagerly for this one for a while since it seemed to have had a long gap since the last one. I had also been eagerly looking forward to the start of another trilogy-set in this series. However, I have to say I’m a little disappointed in this one, though it’s not really the fault of the book.

I love this series for three reasons: 1) Cherryh’s use of language is fantastic, both in her English narrative as well as her English-rendition of the Ragi language, 2) her exploration of the mixed psychologies of human and alien (Atevi) and the political problems they generate has been fascinating, and 3) the stakes have always been high with the political ramification reaching out from the quaint villages into interstellar space.

The first trilogy developed the world and hinted at the interstellar politics that were about to crash down on them. The second trilogy had Bren going out to face those politics and solve them. The third trilogy dealt with the fallout of what happened while he was gone. The fourth trilogy dealt with more fallout from the time they were gone. And… you guessed it, this fifth trilogy opens with even more fallout from the time they were gone.

All the while there is another bit of interstellar politics looming over their heads, with its promised arrival date any day now.

Or more to the point, any book now.

So I was really expecting this trilogy to open with the resurgence of the interstellar problem that was left open during the second trilogy. And MINI-SPOILER, it didn’t. In fact, so strong was my expectation that I went through most of the book expecting it to pop up at the most inconvenient moment, or at the very least, at the end in a sort of cliff-hanger/teaser for the next book. But it didn’t.

Yes, the political intrigue was suspenseful, and I’m really enjoying the growing relationship between Tabini (essentially the king) and his young son Cajeiri. I’m also intrigued by the increasingly visible fractures in the ever-secretive Assassin’s Guild, and I really like what it’s showing us about the back stories of Bren’s bodyguards.

But this is the seventh book in a row dealing with the political fallout of what happened when Bren was away in space. How many more will there be before we get back to that looming interstellar crisis? I feel a bit like I’m complimenting an endless line of chicken dishes, all the while craving another taste of beef.

And yet it was good, so I can’t really fault it for dashing my own expectations. So, I’m giving it a qualified thumbs-up.