It takes a real faith in your own stamina to call the fourth volume in a series "Precursor." The previous three novels have tracked the growth of one of Cherryh's most interesting male characters, Interpreter Bren Cameron. A typical Cherryh male is a pretty sad case, either a bond servant to the most awesome witch in the galaxy (Morgaine series), lapdog to a female starfleet commander (Hunter of Worlds), second fiddle to a bunch of sentient dogs (Faded Sun series), or just not on stage at all (Forty Thousand in Gehenna, Cyteen, Serpent's Reach). He tends to get beaten up, shot at, pushed around, and generally abused in his mistress's service. It took an afterthought (the fourth book in a trilogy) for Cherryh to decide that the best of them, Vanye, deserved his mistress' love.
The Foreigner novels have changed all that. Bren is a small but very important person on a planet in cultural unheaval. The role of Superwoman is relegated to his bodyguard, the breathtaking Jago, an eight-foot-tall killing machine with golden eyes. Cherryh has always excelled at creating and fleshing out alien cultures. Her atevi are as charming and fascinating as the hani of the Chanur books, less humorless than the iduve of Hunter of Worlds, as deadly in their professionalism as the mri of the Faded Sun.
This is not a book to step into without having read the preceding volumes, unfortunately. It's hard to imagine how difficult it would be to navigate the plot without the plot's foundation in three earlier books, but more than that, many of the story's twists and nuances turn on information we learned elsewhere. The dowager, for example, does not need full fleshing out. Seen here without her 'history', she might seem a comic figure. A familiar face, she is perfectly in character at her grand entrance, which is very funny and, be assured, deadly serious.
By this fourth volume we have come to accept the atevi ways as normative and we now find ourselves facing two equally alien human culturesthe starship and the colony. The novel is set almost entirely in human geography, so the alien character of atevi culture is less at the center stage. But as we watch the interaction of Bren, his atevi security and domestics, the polite fencing of Bren and the Dowager Grandmother, the instinctive reactions of the atevi guards to potential threats to their ward, it is the humans who seem alien and peculiar, flawed and incomplete. Like Bren, we come to recognize the atevi as, if we must choose, the superior race in terms of sensibility, vision, and adaptability.
Cherryh continues the delicate romance of Bren and Jago, neither elaborating on it nor moving the relationship forward. More time is spent on his tiresome human family than on examining their relationship and its meaning. This is too bad, because hysterical Barb the jilted girlfriend and Bren's mother are not even mildly interesting, and we would like to know, as Bren half-heartedly reflects on occasion, what kind of atevi scandal an interspecies romance is. (On the human side, the disgust and horror of the few who know can be imagined, I'm sure.) There are, reportedly, two more books to go. A new alien race is about to be introduced; a nice twist, if they were the hani! But one wonders where it will end, for Bren and Jago. Jago, one would surmise, will marry for association, given her status. Bren will find a human lover?
Cherryh's plots have mellowed over the years. There is none of the fire of Morgaine's crusade here, none of the refining landscapes of Kesrith to try the soul. I miss the passion of the iduve, I confess. No one important gets hurt in her newer books. It's becoming a bit of a test for me. What kind of chances will the writer take? What if Bianchi or Jago is killed? Bren is blinded? Where will that take us?
It's too much to ask that every book wrestle with such challenges. To some degree, the other somewhat active series, the Finisterre books, satisfy that need for a sense of danger. Precursor is that science fiction rarity, a comedy. I don't know how else to describe a novel where the deadliest assassins in the solar system are forced to take tea in chairs so small their chins touch their knees, where the white knight who charges in at the end is a little old lady with a dangerous cane. A fun book, and enough development to keep us happy until the fireworks next time.
Cherryh is the best of the 'Soft Science Fiction' writers. (I understand she hates that term; sorry. It's not an insult. There are only so many kinds of hulls and engines; character is infinite.) She is not as literary as Gene Wolfe but much more scientific in her approach to culture and language. Only Le Guin and Card come close to her, and where Card is parochial, she is encompassing; where Le Guin is interested in the individual, Cherryh is the historian with an eye for detail. One does wish that her characters would someday the Hell learn how to damn curse, though.
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 story and sure to become collector's items.
Another excellent source of information on Cherryh and her work is Shejidan, an evolving fan site.
Buy Precursor at Amazon.com