Visions of Paradise

Saturday, May 06, 2006


Approximately one year ago in this blog (5/14/05, to be precise), I reviewed C.J. Cherryh Foreigner, the first volume in her long-running atevi series, and my comments on it included “...Foreigner finds Cherryh at the top of her form” and “In some ways, it represents the best of both styles, being a slow-paced analysis of cultures and society wrapped around a thrilling plot. C.J. Cherryh has proven to me at least that she has lost none of her edge as a writer, so I await the story's continuation in Invader eagerly.”

I am not sure why I took a year to read the second volume, but by the time I did I needed to reread the last chapter of Foreigner for continuity’s sake, since the first three volumes (Invader is followed by Inheritor) form one long novel much as the three Faded Sun books formed one novel which were originally cut for marketing purposes. Apparently, the entire atevi series follows this pattern of each three books forming one novel. This type of extended series is more to my liking than series such as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice or Robert Jordan’s World series which, according to the reviews, seem to be one long, endless novel over several thousand pages. At least in Cherryh’s atevi series, I only need to read three books to complete a single storyline, rather than spend several decades waiting to see how a single intertwined plot ends. And imagine how frustrating that must be for the authors to spend seemingly their entire lives writing one novel!

Anyway, Invader is every bit as good as I hoped it would be. It is primarily a political novel, focused on Bren Cameron, the paidhi who serves as intermediary between the human-populated island Mosphiera and the nonhuman native atevi who, while humanoid in appearance, are totally nonhuman in philosophical outlook and emotional makeup.

Besides Bren, the main characters include:

1. Tabini, the aiji of the atevi, which translates into English as “lord of the local association,” but which more resembles a monarch who was elected by the other lords upon the death of his father;

2. Ilisidi, Tabini’s grandmother who was overlooked for aiji twice, and resents that double slight enough to be one of Tabini’s main foes whom he and Bren suspects as dealing with the rebels struggling to overthrow Tabini;

3. Deana Hanks, who was passed over as paidhi for Bren, and represents the ultra-conservative faction in the Mosphiera government; when Bren is presumed dead near the end of Foreigner, she is sent to Tabini by her faction, and refuses to leave when Bren shows up alive and well;

4. Jago and Banici, Bren’s bodyguards, whose relationship with him deepens and, in one case, veers into a direction totally unexpected by him.

Besides the political struggles between atevi and humans, Invader introduces a third element in the form of the original human spaceship returning after two hundred years. This was the colonizing starship from Earth which two centuries previous jumped into normal space and realized it was totally lost and in dire trouble. Most of the would-be colonists emigrated to the nearest habitable world, which was inhabited by the atevi, while the others left to find another suitable home. Now they have returned and begin negotiating both with the humans and with the atevi through Bren. Much of Invader concerns plans for the ship to send two emissaries to the planet, one to negotiate on Mosphiera, and the other with Bren and the atevi.

However, the civil war which always lies close to the surface worsens as the rebels, who apparently now include Hanks as their own paidhi, make assassination attempts on either Tabini or Bren, or both, and also seem determined to interfere with the arrival of the two emissaries from space.

This might all sound like a fast-paced, action-filled adventure, but long readers of C.J. Cherryh novels realized it is anything but that. A typical Cherryh novel is like an onion, intended to be peeled slowly and carefully as more and more of the culture and history of the atevi civilization is revealed to Bren and, through him, to the reader. The entire novel is told through Bren’s point of view, much of it consisting of his inner dialogue through and around all the events taking place. We learn much about the atevi race and their culture, and the human society on Mosphiera through Bren, but we also learn much about his emotions, thoughts, beliefs, emotional strengths and weaknesses and, perhaps most importantly of all, the loneliness of being a paidhi stuck between two worlds. As he develops closer ties to the atevi, his actions and public words displease the conservatives back home more and more, until their displeasure at him is taken out on his family and friends who try to shield Bren from all of this by hedging whenever he speaks to them by phone.

While some of this might sound like a liberal’s subtle attack on the political differences which have divided America since the disputed election of 2000, keep in mind that Invader was published in 1995, before our country split into pro-Iraqi War conservatives and anti-Iraqi War liberals. Ironically, though, the factions which divide the humans on Mosphiera are a fairly accurate prediction as to what has transpired in America in the past half-decade.

Anybody who likes carefully-developed alien races, well-thought-out cultures, and a slow-paced, thought-provoking look at human-alien relations should enjoy Invader, and its predecessor Foreigner, as much as I did. I await the third volume Inheritor eagerly, and hopefully will not wait an entire year to finish this wonderful trilogy.