Caroline J. Cherryh (I've always suspected the 'h' was a literary afterthought) started her science fiction writing career with a bang (Gate of Ivrel and Hunter of Worlds in 1976, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, 1977, with Hugo and Nebula nominations two years later). Of her first four novels, three are groundbreaking classics that combine an exciting plot with some thought-provoking 'soft science.' Within a few years, she had applied the same skills to hi-tech Sci-Fi, thus winning a Hugo for a 'hardware' adventure, Downbelow Station. Today, roughly twenty-five years later, she continues to produce some of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking "soft science" fiction, enriched with speculative ethnology, invented linguistics, and thoroughly imagined civilizations.
Like the comedian who longs to do Hamlet (or the tragedian who longs to do slapstick), Cherryh has always seemed a bit embarrassed that her forte is the soft sciences. Her Merchanter novels (she calls them the Alliance-Union novels, with the Merchanter books a subset) range from recognizable Cherryh books to obsessively hi-tech adventures worthy of Heinlein or Niven. But for the most part, the organic issues are always there, even in hardware exercises like Rimrunners and Heavy Time. She has ventured successfully into the fantasy genre, with a group of books that explore Celtic and Russian folklore themes, and a few years ago she returned to her first triumph, the Morgaine novels, to write a 'postquel' that leaves her readers wanting more still.
Her best work combines the fish and fowl of her eclectic mind. And always the engaging lock is her talent for fleshing and enspiriting cultural systems, be they the elvish worlds of a fantasy (Goblin Mirror, The Dreamstone, The Fortress books), the grim barracks life of the star trooper, or one of her full-blown ecosystems, like the intellectual iguanas of Forty Thousand in Gehenna. The samurai/Apache Mri of the Faded Sun novels were the first sustained example of this talent, although the same skill invigorates the faux-Medieval cultures in Well of Shiuan and the other Morgaine novels, the predator/prey cultures in Hunter of Worlds, the Atevi culture of the Foreigner books, and even the relatively unknown Brothers of Earth and Hestia. A typical Cherryh novel pits three or four species of advanced cultures against each other, usually with a disadvantaged human caught in the middle. A spectacular example of her skill is the sustained cattery of the five Chanur books, with the spacefaring Hani and their pet human, Tully. Cherryh's lion-derived space merchants would regard Larry Niven's Kzin as a step down the evolutionary ladder.
What follows here is an attempt to cluster and link the books to help you explore this stimulating writer. It's derived from Cherryh's own universe map, except that I'm a bit less convinced than she is about the linkages sometimes. Titles are listed in a suggested reading order where possible within groups. Availability is a constant source of frustration, but search ABEBooks for used copies.
Cherryh is among the best, with Theodore Sturgeon and Ursula K. Le Guin, one of those writers who, even when they are emphatically based in the science fiction genre, have something to offer the non-enthusiast, a breadth of vision and concern grounded in the understanding that the diversity of organic life is a mystery as exciting as the technology of the future. For more details on books and Cherryh herself, try a beautiful fan site evolving elsewhere, Shejidan.
The Chanur novels go in and out of print. Currently half are available in normal editions. Like most good science fiction writers, Cherryh is easy to find at your local used book store.
The Pride of Chanur
Chanur's Revenge, consisting of
Chanur's Homecoming, and a sequel,
This is the chronological order of the Chanur novels, which combine a space opera plot with a wonderfully detailed invention of the culture that sentient lions might create, given a world where they occupy the role of humankind on earth. The books offer an interesting contrast to the Foreigner novels. Imagine those books written from an Atevi point of view. Chanur's Human, Tully, is the alien, possibly as intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate as Bren Cameron, but he can't speak the Hani language.... The centerpiece "trilogy" is actually a single novel, Chanur's Revenge, published in three fairly raw chunks. The Kif Strike Back, for example, won't make any sense if you don't read Chanur's Venture first.
Note: Cherryh's publisher made the strange decision to reprint the first half of the Chanur series in a single volume, The Chanur Saga. Strange, because five divided by two doesn't work. So what they have produced is a book that breaks the never-born Chanur's Revenge in half practically in mid-sentence, leaving out Chanur's Homecoming. Fortunately, Chanur's Homecoming is in print, as is the concluding sequel, Chanur's Legacy.
The Faded Sun: Kesrith
The Faded Sun: Shon'Jir
The Faded Sun: Kutath
Cherryh's first three novels, Gate of Ivrel, Hunter of Worlds, and The Faded Sun: Kesrith, have a common thematic structure. In each, a central human figure, male, is subordinated to a powerful female xenotype. The theme is handled most delicately in the Faded Sun novels. The matriarchal structure of Mri society is a carefully guarded secret, and its meaning and significance enfold as Duncan is immersed more and more deeply into their culture. Another favorite theme appears in all three books, the conflict of two alien species going on "over the heads" of the humans, who are the least powerful and significant of the three sentient races. Here, the humanoid Mri have been sold down the river by their pragmatic employers, the Regul, and a single human gets caught in the middle of an attempted genocide.
Cherryh is a native Oklahoman, and the Apache/Plains warrior analog of her Mri is, I am sure, no accident. The only other novels that use traditional 'Western' themes are the 'Finesterre' pair, Rider at the Gate and Cloud's Rider.
The final volume of The Faded Sun, Kutath, is not currently in print. However, The Faded Sun has been reissued in a single volume containing all three short novels. A real bargain.
Gate of Ivrel
Well of Shiuan
Fires of Azeroth
Collected as The Morgaine Saga
Suffice it to say that Cherryh set herself a tough career path by starting out with books as unique and powerful as Gate of Ivrel, Hunter of Worlds, and The Faded Sun: Kesrith. Most writers would be proud to have written one of them, ever. What hill do you climb next? My own favorite of her novels is Hunter of Worlds, with Well of Shiuan, from the Morgaine series, a close second. The Morgaine novels stake out Cherryh's territory as implacably as any work of fiction. Her blend of science and folklore gives the novels an intellectual depth comparable to Tolkien or Gene Wolfe. The first three novels have been reprinted in a single volume, The Morgaine Saga, but I much prefer the individual volumes with their superb Michael Whalen covers.
Cherryh and her friend Jane Fancher collaborated on a pair of graphic novels based on Gate of Ivrel. They were not well-received, and they sold poorly. Too bad, because they do an excellent job of realizing Cherryh's own image of her characters and races. Cherryh has a piece of her own site set aside to describe them. The best way to get them is to order direct from Cherryh herself. There are two volumes, carrying the action about to the middle of the novel:
Cherryh calls these books the Alliance-Union books, but Merchanter is easier to remember. They generally aren't to my taste, to be candid, although I've read and enjoyed most of them, even the relentlessly technological 'space marines' stuff: Heavy Time, Rimrunners, and Hellburner. There's nothing wrong with these books; it's just that other writers do the same things, and some of them do it quite a bit better. (Niven and Pournelle, for example. And in fairness to Cherryh, her alien cultures make the attempts of the Barnes/Niven/Pournelle consortium look pretty pallid.)
Forty Thousand in Gehenna
Just finished reading this again, and it's hard going, with enormous anthropological and cultural density, but well worth the effort. The problem is that the action covers nearly two hundred years, and ten generations of human history, on a planet given to cataclysmic overthrows. The human culture of the planet evolves at a dizzying pace as the story unfolds. Fortunately, many readers will be sent to it by Cyteen, which takes the 'Gehenna Experiment' as an important plot element. Cherryh has explored elsewhere the mentality of the azi, cloned humans with sad limitations in their personal makeup which result from being entirely lab-educated. Here, they become symbiots of the indigenous Calibans once their colony disintegrates. Cherryh traces two hundred years of cultural development, leading up to one of her hallmark confrontations.
Cherryh's novels move through common themes and plots, and if you liked this book, you should take a look at Hammerfall
These two books won Cherryh her Nebulas and Hugos, the Oscar and Golden Globe of science fiction writers. Neither is a favorite of mine. Cyteen is huge, and when I finally got around to reading it, I was quite disappointed. It is, like all the best Cherryh, a novel of ideas trapped out as an adventure. But here the adventure, actually the prolonged mystery of who killed the central character, drags along to a rather lame conclusion involving politics. The strength of the book is in the ideas. The most brilliant and powerful person on the planet is assassinated, and the novel traces the attempt to create a fully developed human being from her genes. Like Port Infinity, Cyteen explores the nature of personal identity. Is cloned Ari the old Ari reborn? Is she a person at all? Do we like her better because she has grown away from her 'former self'? Should she be assassinated 'again'?
For me, Downbelow Station was just another "guys running around on the space station shouting 'She's gonna blow, Cap'n!'" novel. I'll read it again soon, and perhaps I'll change my mind. I'm glad she has received the recognition she deserved, but I wish it has been for her best work, like the Chanur books, the Morgaine series, the Foreigner novels.
Note: Two of the Merchanter/Alliance novels, Heavy Time and Hellburner, have been reprinted in a single volume, Devil in the Belt
Cherryh's current series, a series of trilogies that makes huge demands on the reader. For example, there are currently (2016) six trilogies (yeah, that's 18 novels) and more on the way.
The first nine novels combine four familiar Cherryh themes: the isolated human coming to terms with a potentially dangerous alien species, the resolution of factionalism caused by the advent of 'spacemen' (in this case, humans), the problem of empathizing with a culture that appears, considered superficially, to be evil as well as dangerous, and difficulty of real communication and affection crossing species barriers. Many readers found Explorer disappointing as a conclusion to the second trilogy. It's not so much open-ended (implying more to come) as lacking in real closure.
The third trilogy, beginning with Destroyer takes us back to the atevi and what Cherryh does best: alien cultures operating on their home turf. Atevi ruler Tabini, Bren Cameron's friend and protector, has been deposed, and the three volumes work through the planet-side politics and conflicts this development precipitates. At that point, I'm afraid, she lost me.
Rider at the Gate
The Finisterre ("End of the Earth") series explores a subject Cherryh has handled before, the empathic relationship between two species. In the Faded Sun novels, it was the Mri and their bonded Dusei, sentient but inarticulate creatures rather like a cross between a bulldog and a bear. In Forty Thousand in Gehenna, it is azi (cloned humans) and Calibans, elephantine reptiles with both sentience and a visible communication system. Here it is 'horses,' a species very much like a horse that bonds, like the Dusei and the Calibans, with a specific person for life. The mind of the human and other is shared but not one.
The Dreaming Tree: The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels
Cherryh has done a good deal of straight 'fantasy' of the Tolkien variety, including these books, Faery in Shadow, Goblin Mirror, the Fortress series, and the Russian series (Chernevog, Rusalka, and Yvgenie). They are good of their kind, but none have been memorable. These two books have a Celtic quality to them, but they are not readily distinguishable from the Russian series. Only the names have been changed.
Cherryh is at her best when she deals in cultural issues, the soft sciences, and at her worst when dealing with human emotions. Her Celtic/Welsh/Saxon folklore and mythology is solid and persuasive. It's the story that falls flat. A key character is Arafel, an elf who could pass for Morgaine's older sister, and her emotional attachment to a series of human men is a key to the action. I recently re-read the two-volume original, and they contain some of Cherryh's better writing about simple, domestic love and affection. But the character of Arafel and the vaguely Lovecraftian (horrors I cannot name or you will go mad!!!!) tone of the conflict weaken the novels, and personal, emotional issues — love, parenting, self-actualization — offer little to compensate. The Dreaming Tree is a revision of two previously published novels. There is also a book club edition of the two books in one volume, Arafel's Saga.
Rusalka et al.: Rusalka, Chernevog, and Yvgenie
Finally read two of these, and I still regret it. Imagine, if you will, a three-volume, three-generation domestic squabble trapped up as a Russian ghost story. If the genre is not to your taste, the situation is hopeless. Here is more of the "dark and nameless horror" schlock cum dreamstones and elvish powers, but now with a Russo/Slavic flavor. There's even a guest appearance by the Grugach of The Dreaming Tree, disguised as a Russian household spirit. It just gets old. I gave up 100 pages into Yvgenie and dug out the Morgaine Saga for one more trip through the real thing — real, named horrors and real, flawed heroes to face them. If you have a taste for this sort of thing (I don't like Puccini or lobster, either, so what do I know?), try The Goblin Mirror first. It uses Hungarian folk sources (I think) and tells a similarly folkish story with some real villains and, surprisingly, a bit of humor.
Fortress in the Eye of Time
Fortress of Eagles
Fortress of Owls
Fortress of Dragons
Fortress of Ice
Another patience-breaking series of novels, each massive (600+ pages) and sad proof that Cherryh is no J R R Tolkien. The Fortress series continues Cherryh's interest in folklore and medieval fantasy. I couldn't get into the first book, so I haven't read the others. I feel a bit guilty, because I should like this story. My son says you have to bear with it for the first hundred pages. But I finished Fortress in the Eye of Time — 700 pages — and I was not moved to go on. A lot of the same Cherryh themes — the nature of personal identity, political intrigue. I think it just drags on. That is to say, like Cyteen (Note: My minority view of a Hugo/Nebula winner, recall), the story didn't need seven hundred pages. And that's only the first volume....
Lois and Clark: A Superman Novel
Uh, no, I haven't read it yet. And I suspect I won't get to it for a while. Cherryh shares a odd characteristic with many writers in the traditionally pulp markets, a propensity to do things that make those of us who take her seriously (that is, treat her work with intellectual respect as well as enthusiasm), a bit uncomfortable. In Cherryh's case, she has played in Thieves' World, the original "universe for rent" that spawned many imitators including Cherryh's own Merovingian Nights. Her Thieves' World short stories are not bad, but she went on to collaborate on the 'Hell' series — a tiresome, humorless cousin of Jose Philip Farmer's witty 'Riverworld' books. Then came the Merovingian Nights franchise for which, as near as I can tell, Cherryh doesn't actually write anything. It's a bit like finding your favorite ballerina working as a pro football cheerleader.
Lois and Clark is apparently a love story, and one thing Cherryh does not write effectively about is eros. Her characters may occasionally come to love each other, sort of, but there is something unpleasantly wooden about their expressions of affection, not so much understated as unfamiliar. A whole book about love is, I think, a bad idea. But I could be wrong. Just not tempted to find out.
Cherryh lists Serpent's Reach as an Alliance-Union book. This whole roman fleuve "the books are all connected" thing (the "[whatever] Universe" stuff) strikes me as hokey and beside the point, and usually pretty unconvincing. It's one thing to link a series of books around continuing characters and cultures, but what is the point of claiming that books are set in "the same universe" when they cover events millenia apart and not causally connected? The "on again/off again" Hanan Rebellion, a book that never, as far as I know, came to exist, is a case in point. Early reports said it would contain Brothers of Earth and Hunter of Worlds, two books I cannot discern any connection between, even on recent juxtaposed reading, and Wave Without a Shore. In fact, Wave Without a Shore ended up with two other books (see below). I'd like to see some proof that Cherryh had "Alliance-Union" all worked out when she started Brothers of Earth, which is pretty obviously her fledgling attempt at science fiction, interesting mainly by contrast with the carefully constructed alternate worlds of the sort she has mastered. Recently she added Hunter of Worlds to the Alliance-Union stuff but forgot to remove it from her "Miscellany," and Port Eternity is "miscellaneous" even though the entire cast is azi: cloned humans who figure in Cyteen and Forty Thousand in Gehenna, which are part of the Union-Alliance series.... Whatever.
The plot line of Serpent's Reach is an interesting precursor to Orson Scott Card's brilliant Ender novels. Cherryh, like Card, posits a highly sentient species based on ant colonies and alternate forms of communication. Cherryh's bugs are as interesting as Card's and even more clearly not just BEM variants. The Paladin and Cuckoo's Egg, on the other hand, are difficult to categorize. Cuckoo's Egg is a good introduction to the Foreigner novels, although the connection is strictly thematic.
The Paladin is a strange faux-Medieval swords novel with a vaguely Asian quality, memorable for its characters and a great nude battle scene. (Don't ask.) And a bit odd in that it tries, with little success, to depict a love relationship. The central characters are an aging "paladin," actually more like a ronin, though the locale is Sino- rather than Nihhonese, and his female pupil, Taizu, a feisty and determined peasant girl on a revenge mission. Their romance is a central theme of the story, and the least believable element. They seem to know how to talk the talk — what love is and all that — but they can't walk the walk. Additionally, the novel bogs down in some confusing and not every interesting epic battles.
Note: DAW's Cherryh anthologies are a great source of confusion. Pulling the Morgaine books and the Faded Sun series into a single volume, however cumbersome and unattractive the format, made some sense. Other collections are simply nutty.
For example, Serpent's Reach and Cuckoo's Egg have been bound together as The Deep Beyond, although there is no real connection between the two books.
Wave Without a Shore, Voyager in Night, and Port Eternity are the content of an anthology called Alternate Realities. Buy it for Wave Without a Shore, though the other two books are not bad. In fact, the other two books are "Cyteen" novels, exploring the azi (cloned human) concept from Forty Thousand in Gehenna. If there is any connection to Wave Without a Shore it escapes me. And why they aren't Merchanter novels is beyond my ken.
The eagerly awaited Hanan Rebellion anthology was written off as a publisher misunderstanding for a while. However, At the Edge of Space, released in 2003, contains the masterpiece Hunter of Worlds and the embarrassingly bad Brothers of Earth, which may be Cherryh's first novel. This pair is now identified as "The Hanan Rebellion," even though at Cherryh's own site there had been, for more than a year, an explanation of the delay. It seems that there weren't any books about "the Hanan Rebellion". But now there are.... Whatever. If it keeps the good stuff in print, claim whatever you like.
Cherryh's Gene Wars novel got mixed reviews. The negatives pointed out that the "alien culture" is just Bedouins riding around on things indistinguishable from camels, and the first half of the novel consists of marching out of the desert, then back in, then out again and then, you guessed it, back in.... And they're right. It's interesting that science fiction readers will put up with the tedious monotony of pseudo-science relentlessly explaining how to make an interstellar drive from, say, potatoes and neustuphiem, but not with the boredom of a Biblical exodus. Different tastes. I liked it.
Hammerfall borrows its narrative foundation from Forty Thousand in Gehenna: the slow disclosure of the science beneath what appears to be a pre-technological universe. All science we do not understand appears to be magic, to paraphrase the old saw. Here, the science is so far beyond the ken of the central characters that they, like the inhabitants of Gene Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun, have no choice but to use the vocabulary of magic and religion to explain it. The effect is a sprawling, Biblical story with familiar elements of the Cherryh world: a flawed man of action in thrall to a fierce, illogical superwoman (two, in this case, fighting over him), cultures of organic complexity that slowly unfolds as the narrative progresses, and world-threatening catastrophe brought on by pride and ignorance. Heady stuff, and obviously the beginning of a new series.
Well, a sequel, anyway: Forge of Heaven takes the Gene Wars story forward and off-planet, and the result is disappointing. The Moses-like hero of Hammerfall, Marak, is still alive, courtesy of genetic tinkering by the hi-tech races in the background of this Iron-Age world. It bogs down in less-than-interesting space station trivia reminiscient of the least interesting elements of the Foreigner books.
I've left Hunter of Worlds here, in pride of last place, because it is in many ways Cherryh's best work. It's a sad commentary on the publishing business that the only way you can purchase it is in a bizarre anthology called At the Edge of Space.
This was the first out-of-print book with reviews that I ever saw at Amazon. It's understandable that lesser titles, like Wave Without a Shore, Brothers of Earth, Hestia, and Port Eternity, aren't in print, but this is one that DAW or someone needs to keep in circulation. To find a copy of the novel other than the anthology edition, try Powell's.
The Iduve are, in many ways, Cherryh's most thoroughly imagined culture, although we are given more detail about the Hani (the Chanur 'cats') and the oil-black Atevi of the Foreigner novels than Cherryh shows us and tells us about these unnerving wolf/lion aristocrats whose natural prey is other planets and whose territorial struggles threaten whole star systems. The play of moral ambiguity, the helplessness of the human captive for whom empathy is an illusion and choosing between factions nearly impossible, the glittering menace of the Iduve, all provide for a tightly knit, compactly plotted adventure.
One of the many brilliant strokes in this novel is relegating the human to third rank among the "races." Many of her novels treat the human characters as secondary to the species in the foreground; often the human is a captive pawn in the political intrigue of other, more powerful players. Here, the narrative point of view throughout is that of the Iduve's servant race, the Kallia, so the human is doubly foreign, as alien to the relatively human Aiela and Isande as it is to the Iduve Chimele and her sibs.
Here is Cherryh at her best, and my favorite scene in all her fiction, when the human stands very still while his Iduve mistress strokes his arm like you might a pet's fur. He is motionless because he understands that while her action is intended to calm and reassure him, the real purpose is to calm herself, and if he moves, he may be dead before she thinks, her reflexes betraying her intentions. That, and her wonderful gesture of forgiveness and reassurance later, when she tells him, after he has the temerity to question her judgment: "Your actions are not noticed."
Great stuff, from one of our most intelligent and thoughtful writers. Track it down in the secondhand stores. Hmmm, time to dig it out and read it again.
Chimele, Morgaine: None finer.
Cherryh's own website is www.cherryh.com. You may want to purchase direct from Cherryh the two graphic novels she and her friend Jane Fancher created for Gate of Ivrel. Interesting variants on the stories I consider among her best work, and sure to become collector's items.
For a thorough, accurate bibliography of Cherryh's work, providing both titles, publication dates, and awards, visit sfsite.com. Stark, but read the headnote and you'll find lots of information. Another excellent source of more diversified stuff on Cherryh and her work is Shejidan, an evolving fan site.