by C. J. Cherryh
I've been wanting to try Cherryh's series for a while, and I'm thrilled to have finally had the opportunity. Cherryh is an intriguing writer, and the world she creates is fully-fleshed and complex. Long ago, a human spaceship found itself transposed a multitude of lightyears from Earth, orbiting the planet of a non-space-faring species called the atevi. Some of the humans onboard leave to create a colony on the atevi homeworld, and for centuries, the humans and atevi live together on the planet in a state too tense to be called "peace." Bren Cameron, a human born on the atevi homeworld, acts as the paidhi-aiji of the atevi court, a translator and mediator who acts as a tenuous bridge between two cultures. Now Cameron must step outside his experience to negotiate with the enigmatic, powerful, and frighteningly alien kyo, and failure could spell doom to human and atevi alike.
If you've read any of my reviews before, you're probably aware that I routinely start series out of order, sometimes at the halfway point or later. So when I say that Visitor is not a good book to start the series with, take it from an inveterate series-order-ignorer and start somewhere else--and no, I can't tell you where. Why? Well, the story assumes the reader is already familiar with the backstory--and there's apparently quite a lot of backstory to be familiar with-- but the sensation of being transported into the middle of a vivid history is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading series out of order.
The real reason why you shouldn't start the series with this book is that it is, indisputably, what I'd term a "payoff book," and payoff books work best when you've actually paid for them by navigating the story arc's slow build. It's the reason why you shouldn't start with Deathly Hallows or Night Watch or Memory: the power of those books comes from the history, from the experiences, from the characters' pasts and the ways they've changed. In Visitor, most of the characters appear to be drawn from previous stories, and in this book, the background politics are put aside as Cameron's friends and allies rally around to support him. I got the sense that such camaraderie should be poignant and touching, but without understanding the base state of conflicts, I missed out on the grand effect. The plot, too, is primarily centered on the repercussions of previous books. Without experiencing what Cameron and his allies went through at Reunion, without seeing their previous confrontations with the kyo, I think the book just can't have the same punch that it would have for the series regular. And this is a good enough story that it's worth doing it right.
The plot is an unusual change of pace from your standard space opera. Don't go into this story expecting battles or heists or daring escapes. It's a book of secrets and repercussions, of breathless waiting and slow-burning tension, of strained negotiation. It's a book about understanding humanity, or, since most of the characters are nonhuman, whatever one calls that core sense of self and civilization. Previous interactions with the kyo involved a lot of mistakes, and now only care and goodwill on both sides can save them all from disaster. Cherryh approaches the conflict she sets up thoughtfully, yet with an endearing optimism. As Cameron puts it, bridging two cultures is all about "Work[ing] until they understand what the person meant, rather than investing in winning." While this may not be the perfect starting book for the series, but for those who are already fans, know you've got something to look forward to. As for me, I've finally been galvanized to put Foreigner on my to-read list.
~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final versions, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~