Foreigner by CJ Cherryh

That was superb. Foreigner is a first contact novel wrapped in a thriller, the twist being that, this time, it’s humans that have landed on an alien planet and having to navigate a completely alien culture.

It had been nearly five centuries since the starship Phoenix, lost in space and desperately searching for the nearest 5G star, had encountered the planet of the atevi. On this alien world, law was kept by the use of registered assassination, alliances were defined by individual loyalties not geographical borders, and war became inevitable once humans and one faction of atevi established a working relationship. It was a war that humans had no chance of winning on
this planet so many light years from home.

Now, nearly two hundred years after that conflict, humanity has traded its advanced technology for peace and an island refuge that no atevi will ever visit. Then the sole human the treaty allows into atevi society is marked for an assassin’s bullet.

The book is split into three parts, the first two of which detail the arrival of the starship and the first encounter between atevi and humans. Then we get into the meat of the story, which centres on Bren Cameron, the one human living in atevi society. Bren is a paidhi, essentially humanity’s ambassador to the Atevi.

When Bren finds himself targeted by an assassin, he finds himself shunted from location to location, desperately trying to understand what is happening and who he can trust.

There are two things that really stand out here, the first of which is the Atevi themselves. This is a truly alien race in terms of their attitudes, their instincts and their culture, and this alienness makes them difficult to comprehend and impossible to fully understand. This keeps Bren permanently off balance as his human instincts are consistently wrong.

The other thing to note is CJ Cherry’s writing style. Once Bren is introduced, the story is told entirely from Bren’s perspective — what Bren doesn’t know neither does the reader and if Bren doesn’t understand the importance of something it won’t be mentioned. This approach demands some work from the reader in that there is much that is not explained, but the depth of the story is such that it is well worth the effort.

With Foreigner CJ Cherryh gives us one of the strongest explorations of how cultures interact — and conflict — with each other that I have read in a long time. The novel is complex, detailed and utterly gripping and will probably bear reading again.

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