A lost colony ship, a desperate landfall on an unknown planet, and an intelligent native humanoid race with very different mental processes. These are the key elements of Cherryh's 1994 novel, the start of a series running to nine volumes so far (with more to come). I read a lot of Cherryh's books in the 1970s and liked them enough to keep them to re-read sometime, but I have neglected her work since then so I turned to Foreigner with interest.
The scene is set in couple of introductory chapters centuries apart; the initial catastrophic journey which caused the starship to become lost, and the first contact after planetfall between the human settlers and the natives (the atevi). The rest of the story is set six generations later, after a human-atevi war which had led to an accommodation being reached; the humans were allowed sole occupancy of a large island in return for gradually introducing their advanced technology to the atevi. Only one human was allowed off the island, the paidhi, who lived with the atevi in order to monitor and understand them while relaying technical knowledge as they were ready for it. The story focuses on one paidhi, Bren Cameron, at a time of crisis between the races.
The atevi are bigger, stronger and faster than humans, and had already reached the steam age at the time of the landing. Now they have aircraft and computer networks. Their similarity to humans had led to dangerous misunderstandings in the past, because their thought processes are decidedly different. They have no concept of friendship; they are bound to leaders or associations by a loyalty code which determines their actions. They have no word for trust, but fourteen for betrayal, and their standard way of resolving disputes is by an officially-sanctioned assassination system. It is a minefield for a human to work in, and the paidhi has to be very good to succeed.
Bren Cameron thought he had established a good relationship with the atevi leader but finds himself apparently betrayed, the target of rival associations who are opposed to the human presence. He needs all of his diplomatic abilities to survive as the situation rapidly slides out of control.
Cherryh is good at portraying the alienness of other races. The atevi are more than funny-looking humans, although perhaps not a lot more different from ourselves than were, say, medieval Japanese. As a result, Bren Cameron struggles to understand the nature of the relationship he has with the two atevi bodyguards on whom he has to rely. The author's story-telling skills drew me in and held my attention throughout. She is rather indulgent in allowing her hero long periods of introspection, with pages at a time filled with nothing but his thoughts, but despite this I found Foreigner absorbing and was sorry when it finished – a rare feeling for me these days. Whether I want to invest the time to plough through another eight volumes (and counting) I'm not so sure, but I might well try the next one and see how it goes.
I notice that a couple more reviews of my alternate World War 2 novel The Foresight War have appeared on Amazon: one each on the UK and USA sites. I was wryly amused to see that one reviewer awarded it 1/5 and the other 5/5. Some contrasting excerpts:
"Good idea, but characters are one dimensional, too much detail on weapons sizes/capability etc. not enough tension created."
"What I liked about this was it didn't get too focused on personalities, love interests, or that sort of thing. Also, it was almost non-stop action. If you like Tom Clancy's novels - the ones where the Russians invade the West, for example - you'd love this. It's really 'techy'."
Which just demonstrates, yet again, that book reviews are decidedly personal, and can say as much about the reviewer as they do about the story.
I have rewritten my introduction to the book as well as updating the list of reviews (good and bad) HERE, where you can also read the first two chapters on-line.