by C. J. Cherryh
Second volume in the Foreigner series. I liked this one quite a lot, much more than Foreigner, and for the first time it makes me optimistic about going through the dozen or so works that Cherryh made in this series. It's still not perfect, or with Cherryh's strongest work--in particularly I still don't like Bren, finding the core character too central to the unfolding universe, too skilled, too much always the man in the right. Early in the series Bren shows up as too much of the multitasking man on the spot that provides a fill in of explanation, and this element represents a real failure of Cherryh’s usually complex prose structure. Similarly, for this book the actual format of the pseudo-thriller action sequences and race to foil assassinations was dull. There’s something about teh action quotient of this series that seems undermining, somehow being far less engaging than the wider intrigue and concepts behind the action.
Still, this balance appears because there is more stress on the political and worldbuilding ideas, and with that is included some fascinating stuff--complex and slow burning political intrigue, strange and complex aliens, an elaborate mesh of competing forces. As well, there's the appeal of the sheer quirkiness from this setting--including the struggle through dictionaries and the theology based on math (that's jeopardized by FTL) that are nevertheless made credible. As a study into an alien political arrangement that features beings mentally different from humans its first rate. Atevi are sympathetic, capable, engaging subjectss that it’s easy to feel interested in and root for. At the same time the story never forgets that they’re without the capability for love or friendship, and a whole range of their default social and political assumptions are alien. The invented history of the atevi and attendant cultural details is very rich, and sometimes the story is at its best allowing this element to play out through exposition or humorous little side details.
The story isn’t that settled though, and is ultimately anything but dull. Beyond the pressure of political manipulation, factionalization and strategic assassination the wider story concerns a long-separated human ship making contact with the atevi and human colony alike. That accelerates and jeopordizes the the process of modernization, putting new level of tension but also possibilities for symbiotic multi-species growth. As a good science fiction writer, Cherryh makes everything unsettled, showing the potential not just for war and menace, but also trade and stability. That the actualization of the latter is made exciting is a larger testimony to her abilities. The top has been blown off the world of the Foreigner series, and watching the major players rushing around in an effort to secure a new balance is ultimately quite exhilarating.
Better than: Foreigner by C. J. Cherryh
Worse than: Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks