Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Series Review: "Foreigner" by C.J. Cherryh

Humans and atevi are incompatible: That is the message everyone learned from the War of the Landing, when human refugees from the spaceship Phoenix tried to settle on atevi lands. For peace to exist on the planet, the two races must be strictly segregated.

Bren Cameron is the paidhi, the sole translator between the atevi mainland and the surviving human contingent on the island of Mospheira. It is an unglamorous and steady job: signing off on cargo shipments, perhaps writing a dictionary entry or two. But when the long-lost Phoenix returns after two centuries of silence, the fragile peace maintained by Bren's predecessors is shattered.

Half of the human population sees this as their chance to return to power. More than half of the atevi see it as evidence of a centuries-long human plot to betray and exterminate the atevi. Suddenly Bren, the maker of dictionaries, must stand in the gap between the species--and negotiate with powers who consider assassination a perfectly acceptable legal recourse.


Foreigner (series) by C.J. Cherryh (1994 & onward)
3 to 4 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 5/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass (in later books)
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: description of torture (first book)
Overall Response: It's not for everyone, but if it's for you, it's SO FOR YOU.


More Thoughts: Dear reader, this once, I'll have to spoil plot developments in order to give this series my recommendation. C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner books are so dear to my heart--and so familiar--that I forgot how unsteady it is at the start. I recommended it to certain of you without preface, and was disappointed when the series didn't arrest you as it did me. I wondered how other readers could not have delighted in gauging alliances based on number theory, or in lethal applications of the word "finesse."

Then I reread it myself, and remembered that the first book is a bit... impenetrable.

I've already spoiled one major plot point for the first book. The return of Phoenix, and the havoc its presence wreaks on the delicate peace between humans and atevi, is the impetus of the narrative. It reappears in orbit at the start of Foreigner. But Bren Cameron, our viewpoint character, is unaware of this news until close to the end of the book.

Here is my first piece of advice: Delay reading the prologue. Begin Foreigner on page 63, when Bren's story opens. Behind you lies a detailed accounting of what happened aboard the ship Phoenix when it went astray in subspace, and the first contact with the native atevi. It's fascinating... but not at all relevant to the plot of the first book. I recommend going back and reading that prologue before beginning the third book (Inheritor) when the story of Phoenix and its errantry becomes significant.

The Foreigner series is grouped into sub-trilogies. The first trilogy--Foreigner, Invader, and Inheritor--revolves around the return of Phoenix to the atevi planet, the introduction of the ship-paidhi (to represent/translate for Phoenix as Bren does for the atevi), and the ensuing factional struggles to control such valuable--and vulnerable--resources.

While the first trilogy is intriguing, the second trilogy is the source of my affection for this series. That brings me to my second piece of advice: be patient with the first few books, and reward yourself with the next. 

This second trilogy--Precursor, Defender, and Explorer--send Bren and his bodyguards from the Assassin's Guild into orbit. They fight (both in tense conference chambers and in smoke-filled, bullet-riddled corridors) for the atevi right to their own planet. Phoenix has stirred up trouble in a distant star system, which will inevitably reach the atevi homeworld if peace is not ensured. The monolithic, fossilized human society aboard Phoenix has no experience with foreign mindsets. Only Bren, who has spent his life code-shifting between two and three different societies, might stand a chance of negotiating with these new enemies.

The second trilogy fulfills all the promises of the first. Bren, a pawn for most of the first trilogy, steps up and becomes a gamemaster. Having been manipulated by the shrewdest leaders among the atevi, he has learned to lie, bluster, and sandbag his way through hostile company. Possibly my favorite part out of the entire series is in Book 4, Precursor, when Bren plays the captains and crew of Phoenix like a yo-yo on a string. Jase, the ship-paidhi, is horrified, having seen firsthand how atevi negotiate; the reader, similarly warned, is gleeful.

Unfortunately, I could never get into the later books. To me, the end of the second trilogy makes the perfect capstone to the arc of the series as a whole. (Yes, yes, six is an untrustworthy number and all that.) The chance to try again, to avoid a second War of the Landing with the kyo--Bren as Tabini's man, through and through, despite the broken arms and the betrayals and the ruination of Bren's own hopes and dreams--all down to the final page when Jago runs and leaps and all is whole once more--it's a perfect capstone to the series.

The series is funny in a dry, subtle way that I find delightful. Bren may insist at the start that atevi are cold and remote, but Bren is wrong about a great many things. Throughout each book runs a quiet comedy of understatement and culture clash. If it weren't for the humor, the intellectual density of the writing would crush the story. Early on, Bren is too fearful of causing offense to respond, but I snickered out loud as the atevi tease and flirt with their strange, tiny human companion. 

Bren is not much like the usual sci-fi hero. He is, by definition, a talker rather than a fighter. He has more in common with Bilbo Baggins than Han Solo. He craves peace and material comforts; dreams of hot baths and hotter cups of tea; drifts off into interminable contemplations of linguistics and number theory and the silent messages sent by fashion.

If the reader can't enjoy Bren as a character, they will not enjoy the series. The narration and the plot is glued inextricably to Bren's thought processes. Cherryh rarely spells out the conclusions Bren comes to, or the clues that lead him there. Rather, she leaves it up to the reader to think alongside him, especially in the first trilogy. The Foreigner series cannot be read passively.

Nor are the books super action-packed with blazing gunbattles (well, not at first.) They are high on tension--figuring out who has betrayed whom, and why, and whether they could be made a counter-offer.

Have I mentioned that Bren's bodyguards are themselves licensed professionals in the atevi Assassin's Guild?

But the books aren't only tricksy and cerebral. There is an ache at the heart of the books: Bren's human need to be liked coming up against the atevi's sense of loyalty, which doesn't quite correspond as he would like. Cherryh hits this point a little too hard and too often at the start. Over time, the narrative (and Bren) settle down and appreciate the atevi for what they are, rather than focusing constantly on the differences. (This is one of the reasons why I enjoy the second trilogy better. Rather than battering constantly on the rocky shores of alien differences, it just runs with them and lets the misunderstandings fall where they may.)

Bren's relationships with the atevi (and his identification with them) grow as his human relationships fragment. Manipulation is a constant theme in the series. At first, Bren is staggered at how callously Tabini, whom he thinks of as a friend, uses him to achieve his goals. He sees this as evidence of how incompatible atevi and humans are. But a side plot is unfoldinging in the background which reveals the less deadly, but nevertheless ugly ways in which his family and his human fiancee try to use and control him. The parallels between the two isn't exactly spelled out (until I just did, for you) but, to me, it is one of the important messages of the series. Everyone wants something from you. Not everyone cares what it costs.

I love these books. I laugh my head off about them. I get emotional about Bren cutting himself off from humanity for the sake of people who will functionally never GET him, never give him what he needs, emotionally. Ancient, wicked, delightful Ilsidi, Bren's favorite enemy, blatantly flirting with the tiny human to scandalize the neighbors, whose teacups are poisoned and whose favor is ever so hard-won. Tabini himself, who is charming and ruthless and playing Bren like a puppet, but who uses the familiar address with him, which somehow makes it all worthwhile again. Banichi and Jago, half asking who they have offended to get landed with the MOST FOOLISH HUMAN ALIVE and half delighted with his idiotic sincerity, and wholly ready to follow (or carry him) into hell and back.

Forget not enigmatic Jago wiping tears (a purely human reflex) from Bren's face after torture, telling him that she does understand him: not always his human thinking, but that "there is great good will in you" (at which point I flash back to my favorite book of all books, Stephen King's Lisey's Story):
I don't care if you understand me. Understanding is vastly overrated, but nobody ever gets enough safety.
Perhaps that's the heart of the series right there.

Foreigner is an unusual series, and not everyone's cup of alkaloid tea. I've given up on finding another person whom I can greet as "nadi-ji," who will revel in constructing formally felicitous sentences over text messages like I do. The next nearest book in style is Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor, which is also about nonhuman high court drama and assassinations and a protagonist who is more into talking kindly than throwing haymakers. The latter suffers from some truly impenetrable (and unnecessarily dense) fantasy conlang, but is otherwise more emotionally accessible than Foreigner. That may be a crucial distinction when it comes to me recommending this series.

For all that Foreigner is a niche read, though, it's a good one. It's worth the slow start.

No comments:

Post a Comment