Publication year: 1994
Page count: 426
Other people, including the back cover of this book, describe the Foreigner as anthropological SF and I have to agree. The main draw and attraction in this book is the alien race, the atevi and their culture, and the interaction between the humans and the atevi. This is not an adventure book.
At first glance, the book can be confusing as the first two “books” are just a prelude to the actual story which starts at “book 3” page 65. Essentially, in book one a human spaceship is lost in hyperspace and after three dangerous years it makes its way to the atevi planet. They don’t contact the locals aliens whose tech level has just reached steam power. In book 2 we see the first contact between the atevi and humans where one atevi kidnaps a human but they’re able to communicate a little. The back cover summarizes the events better than the chapters. Apparently, the humans were able make an alliance with one atevi lord. The humans have far better tech than the atevi. Some atevi attacked the humans wanting their tech and also because the humans had insulted them. The war was ended with a truce in which the humans got a small section of land where their only city Mospheira is now. Also, one human is accepted into the local atevi court, acting as a diplomat and a translator. However, the atevi way to think is so different from humans than even after generations of cautious contact, humans don’t really understand the aliens.
However, the real story starts on page 65, some 200 years after the treaty was signed. Bren Cameron is the current translator/diplomat (paidhi). By law, he’s not allowed to have any weapons. He’s attacked in the middle of the night. Luckily, the local lord Tabini has given him a firearm a few weeks previous. Bren shoots the assassin but they get away. Because of the attack, Tabini sends him to Tabini's grandmother’s place in the countryside where they barely even have electricity. The grandmother, Ilisidi, is a strong-willed woman who isn’t happy that she lost the lord position first to her son and then to her grandson. She’s also a very traditional person who hasn’t had contact with humans. Bren has no idea if he can trust her or her staff.
Unfortunately, nothing much else happens. There are a couple of assassination attempts against Bren but he’s kept away from them and only hears about them. Nobody tells him anything. Ilisidi tests him a couple of times, but mostly Bren just sits and wonders what’s going on and thinks about the local politics. I’m afraid it’s not very exciting.
The atevi culture is in the middle of everything. It’s quite different from modern Western culture. They don’t have lands or nations. Instead, they have alliances to people. They also don’t have words for affection or trust. If they can still feel such emotions, remains to be seen. Part of the legal system are licensed assassins. Most of them work as bodyguards and Bren’s primary protectors, Banichi and Jago, are both assassins. However, for assassination to be legal it must be declared and nobody has declared Bren a target. So, the situation is strange by atevi standards.
Also, they have very strict way in which they need to be seen to behave in public. The higher the rank, the more formal the person (male or female) must be. Personally, I also enjoyed Tabini’s attitude towards eating meat. He, and his household, eat only game.
“[Bren] preferred distance from his meal. Tabini called it a moral flaw. He called it civilization and Tabini called it delusion: You eat meat out of season, Tabini would say. Out of time with the earth, you sell flesh for profit. You eat that never runs free: you call that civilized?”
I enjoyed the atevi characters but I was frustrated by Bren who seemed to be doing noting but argue with them and moping around. We did learn stuff about atevi history.
Cherryh’s dense style of writing here is similar to Chanur or Faded Suns on the surface. However, the repetitions and lack of action isn't typical. I’m told that the series gets better. So far the only attraction in the series is atevi culture and characters. I’m hoping the second book will better.