It’s been the best part of a year since I discovered CJ Cherryh’s Foreigner series, of which Invader is the second novel, and I was very pleasantly surprised at just how easy it was to slip back into the world of the Atevi. It’s fortunate, too, as this novel leads pretty much directly on from its predecessor.
Nearly two centuries after the starship Phoenix disappeared into the heavens, leaving an isolated colony of humans on the world of the atevi, it unexpectedly returns to orbit overhead, threatening the stability of both atevi and human governments.
With the situation fast becoming critical, Bren Cameron, the brilliant, young paidhi to the court of the atevi is recalled from Mospheira where he has just undergone surgery. But his sudden and premature return to the mainland is cause for more than mere physical discomfort. For during his brief absence, his government has sent his paidhi-successor, Deana Hanks — representative of a dangerous arch conservative faction on Mospheira who hate the atevi. And though she should depart when Bren is once again able to fill his post, no recall order comes.
Cut off from his government and haunted by the continuing threat of assassination, Bren realizes his only hope may be to communicate directly with the Phoenix as the spokesman of the atevi — an action which may cut him off for good from his own species. Yet if he doesn’t take this desperate and illegal action, he may be forced to helplessly bear witness to the final destruction of the already precarious balance of world power.
As with Foreigner, Invader not only centres on the character of Bren Cameron, but resolutely refuses to look beyond the character. What he knows the reader knows and nothing he doesn’t know is given to the reader at all — and there is a lot that he doesn’t know.
Cameron’s job is to act as the sole point of contact between the Atevi inhabitants of an alien world and the human population that was stranded there two centuries previously. This puts him in the unique position oh having to navigate not just the diplomatic relationship between the two species but also the increasingly factional mess of human politics and the, potentially lethal, Atevi political environment. Added to all this is the unexpected return of the starship that turns a difficult situation into a nightmarish one.
If this makes Invader sound like a book that is primarily about politics, it is. It is also utterly, utterly gripping. A large part of this comes from Cherryh’s ability to ensure that you can fully appreciate the consequences of the endless discussions.
There is so much going on in this novel that it takes a while for everything to fully sink in. This is no bad thing as you really do get a feel for the sheer alienness of the Atevi, both as a species and as a culture. This came across, for me at least, much more strongly than in the first novel and presents a culture for which attitudes that humans take for granted simply don’t exist.
Invader is a superb combination of political thriller, hard-sf contact novel and anthropological discussion. I’m sorely tempted to go back and read it again, but I also really want to know how Cherryh pulls everything together in Inheritor, the third part of this sub-trilogy.