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.
Further information about what happened when the two races made first contact (war, isolation of the humans on the island Mospheira, the subsequent shaky treaty between the two races) is told through reminiscence by Bren Cameron, the human paidhi or interpreter, whose job is much more than supplying definitions to words. Because of their past conflicts, the paidhi must walk a narrow path between simply limiting the human knowledge he will pass on to the atevi, and actively lying to them.
Bren has developed a relationship with the local ruler, the aiji Tabini, which his human heart insists on characterizing as friendship and mutual trust. The problem is, atevi language has no word for trust—and fourteen words for betrayal. When Tabini abruptly sends Bren to a remote castle to stay with his mother, the dowager-aiji Ilisidi, he warns Bren will need all his diplomacy to survive.
Bren stumbles from one life-threatening incident to another, seeking a trust he cannot count on. Is his security chief Banichi trying to kill him? Is the major-domo of Ilisidi’s house, Cenedi, an assassin? Did Tabini send him to Ilisidi so that she could kill the paidhi without involving his court?
Can he even trust the human government he works for?
As a stand-alone novel, this is a fantastic read. As the opener for the series, it is a solid foundation for the whole multi-novel set (which may be a decalogy by the time Cherryh is finished.) I recommend it highly.