Pretender, by C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh has done three series of three books on the "Foreigner" series, so perhaps it follows that three is considered a felicitous number by her seven-to-eight-foot-tall aliens, called the atevi. I’ve always been in awe of Ms. Cherryh’s ability to create alien mindsets and the atevi are a wonderful creation. They are so mathematically agile that their very language and aesthetics are based upon numerology, and humans can easily be offensive just by insinuating pairs within their speech (two is infelicitous). This, coupled with human’s lack of understanding atevi man’chi (sorry, no easy translation), led to downright warfare on the atevi world. Eventually the humans, as the visitors, were relegated to a large island and they traded and dispersed their technology to the atevi slowly through a human ambassador, named the paidhi.

Enter Bren Cameron, the latest paidhi. This is the opening situation at the beginning of the "Foreigner" series. Rather than attempt to summarize six to seven books, I’ll just say that Bren becomes more entrenched in atevi society than any paihi before him. He endures atevi assassination attempts as well as political efforts to unseat him, from both human and atevi parties. Things are made much more difficult when the original ship that brought humans to the planet returns to the abandoned orbital station, causing cultural upheaval on the atevi continent as well as the human island. Bren decides that the atevi deserve a controlling interest in the space station and helps the atevi build such vehicles. He later brokers a multi-species mission into space to rescue some errant humans.

In this third series, beginning with Destroyer, Bren and the mixed atevi-human crew are back to find the original atevi leader (the aiji) Tabini deposed and replaced by an anti-space-exploration aiji. Pretender is all about Tabini attempting to regain his seat as aiji. Much of the book involves the politics of the situation and Cherryh does politics well, perhaps too well. The minor complaint I have about Pretender is that it felt unbalanced: too much political discourse in the first three-quarters of the book, with the action packed almost too tightly in the last part of the book. Of course, Bren must usually be observer, not participant, during firefights and let his security handle the problems. Near the end, though, Bren attempts to save someone through physical action — but in that action, Cherryh reminds the reader how different human and atevi mindsets can be.

As usual, I can’t wait to read the next installment, called Deliverer. One other point to make, and this time it’s about cover art. As a reader, I thought I didn’t pay much attention to cover art but according to publishers and editors, I do. So I’ve recently tried to become more cognizant of the covers and I was disappointed at Pretender’s art. The atevi didn’t look very alien — so I took a look at past covers, which I thought were superior. I found that Michael Whelan did my favorite covers (particularly Explorer and Destroyer). For Pretender the artist changed to Donato Giancola, who has made the atevi look far too human.

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