I set about originally with a sketch—I draw—of Banichi, which actually ended up in [cover artist] Michael Whelan's hands. Novels start all sorts of ways, and this one had been a fragment that nagged me... it was just so interesting to write that I kept going... Banichi and Jago have gotten more fanmail than I would have believed. Thank you so much, readers! I haven't run out of ideas, and Bren's job keeps producing trouble of every sort.
—C.J. Cherryh, Spokane 2004.
Cherryh writes truly alien characters. From the atevi of this series, with their instinctive grasp of mathematics, and their Japanese-style courtesy (and the bedroom fascination some ateva have with the human paidhi), to the bear-like Hani sapients of the Chanur ships, her aliens are only superficially the same as other science-fictional tries at describing aliens. Most are B-movie monsters, suitable for portrayal by an actor in an alien suit.
Where Cherryh succeeds is in revealing, through alien interaction with humans, just how unknowably other these intelligences can be. In this, her aliens resemble the Thranx of Alan Dean Foster's Commonwealth novels. Like "two nations divided by a common language," however, the differences in how they think supply a minefield of potential misunderstanding for the humans they encounter.
The humans in this story have gone disastrously awry on their trip to a new colony. Where they wound up, there are no familiar stars, and they barely make it to the home world of the atevi. The colonists choose to abandon the station in orbit for a one-way trip to the surface. Cherryh sets the scene for the first encounter with the native sapients, then flashes forward to "present-day" and continues the tale.