Monday, September 1, 2014

Two-For-One Review: "Rider at the Gate" and "Cloud's Rider" by C.J. Cherryh

"Heed not the beasts," the preachers who led the human colonization of Finisterre say. The planet's native species, great and small, predator and prey, can fill a person's mind with telepathic images until reality blurs. When the most dangerous of all--the carnivorous nighthorse--comes calling for a rider, the best thing their quarry can do is go join it, before it kicks in the door and lets in the many-toothed swarm of the world.

Danny Fisher is cast out by his religious family when he becomes Cloud's rider. But the rider camp that protects Shamesey town is no safe place for a poor junior rider, either. When the only rider to show him kindness is driven out as a rogue, Danny rides into the mountains alone to help him.

Up in the snowbound heights, a real rogue terrorizes isolated villages, hunting down any truckers or riders caught outside walls. Insanity is a deadly pandemic on Finisterre, when the thoughts of a madman--or a mad horse--can infect an entire mountain range. With the wilderness full of hungry predators, and human settlements full of paranoia and old grudges, no one may survive the coming winter.

3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

It is one of the greater disappointments of my life that C.J. Cherryh has only published two books in her sci-fi/western/horror series (known variously as the Rider series, the Nighthorse series, or the Finisterre series.) Rider at the Gate and Cloud's Rider cry out for a third book to round out the ongoing tale into a trilogy.

I used to frequent the author's blog, where she talks about ongoing and past projects. I have a vague memory that there was indeed a third "Rider" book planned at the beginning, but due to copyright concerns/the length of time between the original publication date and a new release/projected interest/something something, that third book never made it into readers' hands. Unfortunately, I can no longer find any source for that explanation.

The dangerous and uncharted world of Finisterre is so vast and spooky that I can accept, with ill grace, the ending as it stands in Cloud's Rider. But I will always hold out hope that Danny Fisher and Cloud will someday track Brionne and her monster over the mountains and bring an end to the nightmare.

Dear reader, I've gotten ahead of myself.

Science fiction, westerns, and horror--what a fantastic combination. They share the fear of the unknown frontier, the dangers that hide in the dark and the empty sections of the map.

Cherryh's other novels occasionally suffer from confused narration. In her intelligent but sparse writing style, characters make intuitive leaps which Cherryh expects the reader to grasp without explanation, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. (I have read her Russian fairytale Rusalka three times and still don't grasp what all went down in the climax.)

Ironically, her "Rider" books read in a straightforward fashion. The viewpoint character may not be certain whether they see reality with their own eyes, or if they see what the rogue wants them to see, but the reader always knows what they're doing, where they're going, and what they hope to achieve.

The trick to reading the book is remembering that a viewpoint character's narration might be "overheard" by other characters, if the telepathic nighthorses are nearby to amplify their riders' thoughts.
"You're being loud, kid," Jonas said.

"Yeah, well, get off me. Doing the best I can." He didn't look at Jonas or the rest of them.

"Kid." That was Hawley. He didn't dislike Hawley. He really, really wasn't sure about Jonas.

"Kid's adjusting," Jonas said. "And he doesn't know."

Truth. Jonas always talked nicer about him than Jonas talked to him. He didn't know why Jonas couldn't do a little adjusting himself. Didn't know why Jonas had wanted him if nobody was going to believe him, except that remark Jonas had made about him being bait, and he didn't take that altogether as fluffery.

They probably thought he was lying about people following him, trying to make himself important, trying to cover his trailing in late the way he had, as if there was some big, awful danger out there and he'd escaped it on his own.

Serve them right if somebody did come up on them. And he'd warn them, of course, but they wouldn't listen. They were seniors, and knew everything.

"Kid," Jonas said. "Calm down for two minutes, have you got it? We can send the horses off a ways so you and I can have a discussion, if you want."

"No, sir," he muttered. Nobody was sending Cloud anywhere he didn't want Cloud to go. But it wasn't smart to quarrel with men who carried knives for more than fire-making. It didn't even take a junior rider's intelligence to figure that out.

"Guns are quicker," Jonas remarked dryly.
The atmosphere of the "Rider" books is tense throughout, as if the rogue infected the actual pages of the book with fear and uncertainty. To balance it out, Cherryh populates Finisterre with characters who are rugged and simple in their feelings and their needs. Tara Chang only wants to do her duty by Tarmin village and keep her partners safe. Guil Stuart just wants to be fairly treated by his dead lover's partners, to get what he has earned and not to be lied to. Danny--young, reckless, wonderful Danny--wants to be a man, to pay his debts and be respected, not kicked and laughed at, and not eaten.

(Spoiler: all of them want the impossible.)

If I could start back at the beginning, I would read the book once for the adventure, for the vast, haunted, terrifyingly beautiful mountain settings that make me so homesick for Colorado, for the mystery of the rogue and the gut-wrenching sense of impending doom. I would then read it again for the nighthorses, which are delightful and a spot of surreal comedy amidst the darkness. I have laughed out loud at the commentary from these quasi-intelligent monsters and their own animal take on the awful situations they have dragged their riders into.
Guil couldn't feel his toes, but he didn't think he'd been out there long enough for frostbite, thanks to Burn, all thanks to Burn.

<Bacon in dry bright sun,> he promised Burn, clenching his teeth to still the shivers. <Burn coming over the hill in the rain. Burn carrying the packs. Handsome, splendid, shining in the sunlight nighthorse.>

Burn lapped it up like cream; and Burn began to think of <fire, and dry bedding and bacon cooking,> which wasn't as good as edible supper, but it was far better than the drip of rain in the real world outside.

<Wet, dripping wood,> Guil thought, there being very little convenient way to image a complete lack of any given thing--and Burn wasn't much on the technicalities of firemaking. Burn knew it was raining, of course, and Burn hadn't found a woodpile, or any trees, but Burn was hungry. There were three slabs of bacon in the supplies--and that of course changed all logic. Bacon was here. <Fire> happened in Burn's mind when Burn thought of it.

So Burn thought of <fire.> Burn did his part. Burn expected it to happen.
Rider at the Gate runs straight into Cloud's Rider, the storyline picking up only days after the encounter with the Tarmin rogue. I wouldn't advise picking up the first without having the second on hand, because they go quickly. The story of the Tarmin Rogue continues through both books. Cloud's Rider also develops the relationship between the riders and the settlers more, fleshing out the planet's strained sense of civilization and damnation, whereas the first book chases the characters out into the wilderness and more or less remains there.

The highest singular honor the "Rider" series holds for me is that its villain won more real hatred from me than any book I have ever read. Mustache-twirlers and schemers and murderers can never earn such a heated reaction from me as one person's absolute selfishness. Even a villain who abuses or kills other people is still conscious of them. Brionne Goss, though, is utterly oblivious to the harm she has caused, because there is no room for anyone in her thoughts but herself. Perhaps that doesn't sound like villain material to you yet, dear reader, but then, you haven't been up on Tarmin Height with a rogue. 

Rider at the Gate and Cloud's Rider are no longer being printed, I believe, but copies are still available on Amazon. I have never failed to find copies of them in the sci-fi section of used bookstores. Additionally, Cherryh is working on formatting them for e-book readers in between working on her newer series. I encourage you to grab a copy as the weather starts to turn and winter looms ahead.

Thanks go out to Ed and Hillary, who expressed interest in hearing more about this series! Cherryh is a gifted and prolific author who deserves to be better known.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: ambient horror, child abuse, animal deaths

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