What I’m Reading: C. J. Cherryh – Deceiver

I love reading stories about intrigue, where the aim is to outwit your opponents, not to overpower them, where complex machinations are set into motion and then clash with each other in unexpected ways, where the antagonists dance around each other with words rather than bashing at each other with weapons, but where a well-placed word can be as deadly as a swordstroke or a bullet. And C. J. Cherryh belongs to the authors who do this best, in particular in her Science Fiction (which I tend to prefer over her Fantasy), and even among her extensive work the Foreigner series marks a high point in the way she unfolds, develops and finally wraps up political intrigues.

A large part of Deceiver (which is among the more intrigue-heavy installments), volume #11 in the series, is taken up by Bren Cameron and his associates (the always formidable Dowager Ilsidi is this time joined by Lord Geigi returning from the space station) thinking and talking through the implications of the conspiracy discovered in the previous volume, Conspirator, peeling back its many layers until they arrive at the truth behind it and discover who is actually pulling the strings, and then trying to find a successful counter-strategy that would avoid embroiling the whole planet in a disastrous war. Reading about people talking and thinking is probably not everyone’s cup of tea (even if most of them are aliens), but I for my part found it very exciting to follow this, to watch people use their brains plausibly in a SFF novel that blithely assumes that the reader is not completely stupid and able to follow what’s going on.

It is always a pleasure to see Bren settle into atevi mode and to see how comfortable he is among them now – he has come quite a long way from the scared, inexperienced interpreter of Foreigner, to the degree that he is starting to get worried about losing his touch with his essential humanity. This familiarity with atevi culture might have constituted a problem for the series – Bren in the early novels was markedly non-atevi, someone who never quite belonged and had to struggle to understand the finer points of atevi behaviour and language. As such, he was a representative for the readers, offering them an outside perspective on the atevi not altogether dissimilar to their own. But the more comfortably settled in the alien culture Bren became, the more estranged he grew not only from his own humanity, but also from the readers who were thus in danger of losing their bridge to understanding the atevi.

Cherryh solved this problem in an unforeseen and uttlerly brilliant manner by introducing another viewpoint character, Cajeiri. The really clever thing Cherryh does here is that she does not give us the point of view of view of another human (which would likely have only been a rehash of young Bren) and instead selects an atevi, but one that grew up amongst humans, and so is a foreigner to his own culture. I admit, I was a bit sceptical about Cajeiri at first, but the way his point of view is handled in this arc overcame all my doubts – a lesser author probably would not have pulled it off but Cherryh keeps just the right balance, making Cajeiri familiar to the reader without negating his essential alien-ness, and presents us with a perspective on ative culture that is very different from Bren’s. Cajeiri shines in particular in Deceiver; his struggles with his two new body guards and how to deal with man’chi were my  favourite part of this generally excellent novel.

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