The first trilogy of books in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series grabbed me. The third book, Inheritor, snorted too many lines of cheap sf, but overall the novels’ in-depth exploration of culture and otherness was unlike anything I’d encountered to that point. The second trilogy was a major departure, but again, the focus remained on relationships and the differences between them, and had the strongest overarching storyline of any of the trilogies to date. With the third trilogy things started to crack and fray. Where each of the first two trilogies had a defined arc, the third moved like a drunken man at a Rolling Stones concert, i.e. according to its own set of rhythms that only it understood. It was worrisome. Was the series I enjoyed so much starting to fall apart?
Reading the blurb for the next Foreigner book (the tenth), Conspirator (2008), my senses went on full alert. That is just a repeat of the plot from Deliverer!!! my inner voice screamed. What is Cherryh doing?!?! I have since picked up and completed Conspirator. What are my senses telling me now?
The events of Deliverer led the reader to believe that the southern uprising was put down, and that Tabini had re-established himself as Atevi leader. Bren had returned to his old post as translator, advisor, and otherwise jack-of-all-human-trades. Cajeri had been returned to his family. And with the leader of the coup dead, the overall situation appeared calm once again. We could get back to the human-atevi conflicts that were introduced and escalated through the first six novels. Conspirator says: “No no, think twice.” While the larger thematic picture has yet to be fully revealed for the fourth trilogy, Conspirator puts readers right back into the waters—literally and figuratively—of Deliverer. There are events wherein Cajeri is once again alone and hunted. The southern uprising appears not to have been quelled (at least so it seems). And Bren and the dowager must once again use their talents and skills to get out of a sticky situation. And oh, Barb is back, being Barb.
It’s been a few weeks since I read Conspirator, and the one summarizing thought I keep coming back to is: is Conspirator Cherryh’s attempt to redo, to wipe from the record books the mess that was Pretender and Deliverer? As mentioned, the plots are similar (not the same, but similar), only this time the focus is laser sharp, no drunken man dancing. If one ignores the Barb scenes, Conspirator feels like the novel Pretender and Deliverer should have been, or at least Pretender (we don’t yet know enough to make the full comparison to Deliverer).
But for as much as Conspirator improves upon yet repeats the previous novels, it still begs a lot of questions. For me, this is primarily singular: what the hell happened to the storyline in space from the second trilogy? There have been sparse mentions of the third alien race, as well as only a sentence here or there about tensions in the human-occupied space station over the past few novels. All of the drama that went with Bren, Cajeri, and the dowager’s multi-year run through space remains a moot point four books onward. I don’t believe, nor do I expect Cherryh to have had a master Foreigner plan in mind when she began the series decades ago. It’s clear she’s feeling her way as she goes, which is fine. But I can’t help but think she is not building from the successes of her labor in the second trilogy by echoing the storyline of the third trilogy at the beginning of the fourth. It feels like there is so much more to mine from, for example, a third alien race, particularly conflict with another race. This would put a new light on Atevi-human relations as well, and bring with it a whole new set of relationship struggles and conflicts… As mentioned, human-Atevi relations regarding technology and space remain unresolved. But here we are at Conspirator, characters predominantly rehashing what they did two books ago... I digress.
Given the strength of Conspirator from a technical perspective I will hold out that Cherryh has a hand on the series’ reins, and read the next novel, Deceiver. But I’m losing faith… If it too proves to be no more than echoes, I don’t know what I will do…