C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series is (with volume #14 about to be released as I’m writing this) one of the longer-running series in Science Fiction and might very well be the one with most detailed world-building, or, more precisely, with the most detailed exploration of an alien culture. As so often with Cherryh, it is at its heart a story about culture clash between different species, in this case between the humans (or a group of them that has been stranded on a far-off planet) and the atevi (the dominant species on that planet).
Cherry’s atevi, who have no concept of anything resembling love or friendship among humans, but whose society is held together by a quasi-feudal system of allegiance, are quite unabashedly modelled on Asian cultures; in particular a certain formality and reliance on ritual in interpersonal communication is quite reminiscent of the Far East. Cherryh has occasionally been criticized for basing her alien civilizations on human ones, but I do not think that this criticism is valid – writings that provide us with insights into the ways human cultures interact with each other are not any less significant than writings that describe genuinely alien cultures (which are extremely rare anyway – off the bat, I can think of only two successful examples, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and James Tiptree’s story “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death”). Much of the best of Science Fiction has used the genre to comment more or less openly on the present, and that is the tradition one should see Cherry’s Foreigner series in.
The series consists of several three-book arcs (and it is probably not a coincidence that three is a fortunate number in atevi culture) and Conspirator, being entry #10 in the series as a whole, kicks off the fourth such arc. Everyone who has been following the series this far will be impatiently waiting for the arrival of the Kyo (a second alien race encountered in Explorer) to arrive on the atevi homeworld; I knew from the back cover blurbs that this was not going to happen yet, and in consequence, was somewhat concerned that Cherry might just be treading water here, but as it turned out, I need not have worried.
The story starts off innocuously enough, with some quibbles over Bren Cameron’s appartement and him in consequence moving to his country estate for an extended vacation (I’d be willing to wager that Cherryh was itching at some stage to call this volume “Bren Goes on Holiday” or maybe “Vacationer”). But then things start to snowball and by the novel’s end our protagonists have had to deal with an assassination attempt and a major conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the balance of power on the planet. Conspirator does stays true to the series’ mixture of political intrigue and action, and while it does not present any innovations for the series, it keeps it exciting and entertaining even after ten volumes. The novel does not quite end on a cliffhanger but leaves things mostly unresolved at its end, and I was glad that I had waited until the complete arc was released before starting on it.