Sunday, October 20, 2019

Review of Pretender by C.J. Cherryh

It perhaps goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: don’t read this review without having read the novels prior: spoilers.

I still clearly recall reading Foreigner, first novel in the Foreigner series. It starts out with a literal bang—an assassination attempt on the main character, Bren. But that’s it. There is no more action of a similar caliber (har har). The rest of the book is a dialogue/exposition-oriented story focusing on the social, political, and cultural concerns of human and atevi interaction. What I recall is the realization: “Oh, this is one of those types of books. Let’s see where Cherryh takes her exploration of Otherness.” And the slow pace continues in the next installments—I’m sure much to the chagrin of the legions of sf readers looking for action and simple drama. But for readers who understand and appreciate what Cherryh is doing with the Foreigner series, it is explicitly understood that Bren’s life will not mirror Tom Cruise’s. Enter Pretender (2006), second novel in the third sub-trilogy and eighth overall in the Foreigner series. It’s positively Mission: Impossible.

Pretender opens in the aftermath of the assassination attempt that closed Destroyer. Bren and what has now become the Foreigner cast of lead characters are left holed up in the country estate, fearful yet protective against further attempts. In the cleanup, Bren attempts to get his computer online to share with lord Tabini the results of their rescue mission into space and meeting with the Kyo. But with further assassination attempts looming, not to mention fresh news of changes in the assassin’s guild that happened while Bren was away, even so simple thing as a computer connection is anything but guaranteed. Once again having to keep a clear head in a tense situation, Bren must work with the atevi to escape the country estate and spread the word about the news of their mission to the whole planet.

For readers who dislike the family, (melo)drama side of Bren’s story, Pretender will appeal. Highly focused on events immediately following upon the assassination attempt that closed Destroyer, Cherryh sticks to the political intrigue driving the attempt and the atevi political unrest that is happening in the wake of the attempted overthrow of Tabini. But perhaps more so, for anyone who believed the Foreigner series was a snooze-fest, Pretender is positively brimming with action. To some degree, the last two-thirds of the book are non-stop action—at least in Foreigner terms, which makes for an interesting change of pace (despite the wilder than usual absurdities).

But does the change of pace make Pretender a solid contribution to the growing Foreigner series? Generally, yes. Readers are by now familiar with the whole cast and how things generally work among them, so it’s good to shake things up with extended drama. The quality of the drama is a bit strained (i.e. it’s realism falls in line with the conclusion of Inheritor). But the story is taken to its next major milestone. There is a huge question remaining, however: with matters largely resolved for this sub-series in Destroyer and Pretender, what’s left for Deliverer? What tension still underlies the story arc to propel the next novel? I’m a little skeptical…

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