For twenty-five years, C. J. Cherryh has been one of the most intellectually exciting writers in the business. The holiday season brings not one but two new novels, and they are a study in contrasts. I reviewed Hammerfall a few weeks ago, comparing it to her other low-tech science fiction, notably The Faded Sun books and Forty Thousand in Gehenna. Hammerfall recounts the Biblical exodus of a nomadic people. Their survival is threatened by the godlike wrath of an alien species; the nature of the enemy and the threat, they can only understand in supernatural terms. The contrast to Defender, with its humans and atevi engaged in diplomatic conflict as subtle as negotiations between a Japanese emperor and his Chinese counterpart, is bracing.
In one respect, the two books are quite similar, though. Nothing much happens. In fact, in both novels, the "climax" is essentially to set the real action under way, preparing us for the next book in the series. For Defender, that book is Explorer, supposedly the concluding novel in this six-volume behemoth. Given what has still to be resolved, and given that Defender only manages, in three hundred pages, to get us from deciding on an interstellar voyage to launching the spacecraft that was waiting, fueled, on page one, I have have my doubts.
But no complaints. As Samuel Johnson said of a famous contemporary's endless novel, "Anyone who read Samuel Richardson for the plot would hang himself." Cherryh has her share of action novels, notably Serpent's Reach and Hunter of Worlds. But her forte is the novel of ideas, the careful unfolding of the inner life of a culture, and the atevi, dangerous as they are, are unfolding into something rare and beautiful. The subtleties of communication between Bren and his staff are delightful, for example.
A word of warning, though, if you are not familiar with the other four novels in the series: Defender depends on your familiarity with the preceding books. I don't think anyone who hadn't read them could engage in the story at this point. Major characters, such as the ruler of the atevi, Tabini, are entirely off-stage. The dowager, Ilisidi, seems a minor character if we have not seen her in the previous books. The subplot of Bren Cameron's personal life as a human is relegated to a scattering of emails. The cross-species love affair with his bodyguard Jago is covered in a few sentences. Understanding the motivations of key characters like the co-captain of the starship, Jase Graham, requires reading at least Inheritor or Invader, for example.
With four books behind us, it is great to enjoy the leisure of studying atevi culture. Here, Cherryh seems more interested in nuances of their language and values than in advancing her plot, and if you enjoy the anthropological game of comprehending value systems utterly alien to your own, you will enjoy this book. My own favorite moment is when Bren's lover, Jago, offers to "file Intent" on his ex-girlfriend Beth, not because she's jealous, but because the woman is a nuisance to her "boss." "Filing Intent" is the formality of the Assassin's Guild which changes an anticipated killing from murder to a bit of atevi business. A few pages later, Bren gets a letter from Beth in which she expresses her hope that his alien girlfriend will make him happy.
Don't get me wrong. Things happen in this book. Bren resolves his family problems. Two new characters who come to center stage look to be keys to the conclusion of the series. One of them, Tabini's son, is obviously being groomed for a major role; the other, Captain Sabin, is one of Cherryh's patented tough female executives and on a collision course with the dowager, having lost their first bout. And the starship is launched, in those last pages, bearing Bren and his entourage, the dowager and hers, on a diplomatic voyage we will have to wait a year or more, as the atevi will, to see the outcome of.
Cherryh's grasp of her subject matter is awe-inspiring. Her best books are encyclopedic in their breadth and depth of detail. The Foreigner series, now one book short of complete, has taken us from the limited technology of a post-Medieval atevi society into the dark of space, and what we learned about the flora and fauna of the atevi landscape four books ago is as lively and interesting as the prospect waiting at the distant, possibly hostile space station that is Bren's destination. All told, the Foreigner story is shaping up to be about 3,000 pages, about half the size of Richardson's Clarissa. It is a "book" for those of us who enjoy big landscapes. Defender is a quiet glade on the narrative mountain.
I have a page devoted to discussion of C. J. Cherryh's novels, and her own website is www.cherryh.com. You may want to purchase direct from Cherryh the two graphic novels she and her friend Jane Fancher created for Gate of Ivrel. Interesting variants on the stories I consider among her best work, and sure to become collector's items.
Another excellent source of information on Cherryh and her work is Shejidan, an evolving fan site.
Buy Defender at Amazon.com [Hardcover]