Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: C.J. Cherryh

Published: 2006

Reviewed: 2007-05-05

Publisher: DAW Books

First of all, let me be clear that "Pretender" is the eighth book in a
series, and that you cannot start here. Ms. Cherryh's writing is such
that you could almost certainly catch up, but you would have seven
excellent preceding books spoiled for you in the process. Seeing that
I haven't yet reviewed any from her "Foreigner" series, however, I'll
talk only a little about "Pretender" and mostly about the series as a

The basic idea for the series is simple: long ago a human colony ship
got lost in space and ended up at the planet of the atevi, a species
very much like humans. The main difference is their social emotions:
humans befriend each other, atevi have man'chi toward one another, and
the two are just different enough to cause huge misunderstandings and
wars. After hard lessons, the two species segregate and the only
point of contact is a single human translator who is in charge of
managing the gradual technology transfer that is bringing atevi up
toward human capabilities. Generations later, the story begins as
tensions within atevi society threaten to destroy the peace.

Seven books later, things are very different than they started, but
the nut of the story is the same: conflict between people, between
points of view, between societies well-adapted for very different
circumstances. It is classic Late Cherryh, and a mode that she has
become extremely good at over the years. If you have read some of my
other reviews, you may know that I strongly favor third-person limited
perspective: Ms. Cherryh's work plays no small part in developing that
preference. She is nigh fanatical about sticking to the interior of a
single character's head, with no authorial glimpses behind the
curtain, and this lets her draw drama from the fact that her
characters live with the same uncertainties about life that we all
do---they just live in much more world-shaking circumstances. Thus,
you get books in which much of the action and drama is not physical
and actual, but mental and potential.

This is a style that does not work for some people. I can certainly
understand why: for one thing almost nothing "happens" in a typical
Cherryh book. "Pretender," for example, takes place over 48 hours,
during which the main character basically walks around, worries, sits,
and talks to people. Occasionally, there is serious action happening
nearby, in which case he hides. If you want heroic fiction, you will
be sorely disappointed.

On the other hand, those 48 hours of sitting, talking, and hiding come
trampling over the reader in an incredible, nerve-wracking, rush. You
live the life of the main character in a time of crisis and upheaval:
your heart beats faster when things get chancy, you clench your hands
anxiously when events move out of his control, you dart off in flights
of speculation as Ms. Cherryh wisps another micro-veil away from the
mighty engines of plot thrumming out of sight. You rarely see them,
but you can feel them shifting the ground on which the main character

All told, "Pretender" is an excellent addition to this body of work, a
world ambitious in its simplicity and a story audacious in the amount
of fascination and excitement it squeezes out of two days filled
mostly with the inability to affect events. A lesser author would
have written the whole series in a single book. Ms. Cherryh leaves me
panting for book number nine, and I shall start reading it next week.