Reviews: Cherryh, C.J.

Where The Rippling Waters Glide

Hestia — C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh’s 1979 Hestia is a standalone science fiction novel.

The colonists who settled Hestia were warned that the valley on which they had set their hopes was not suitable. The settlers ignored the warnings and founded a community in the valley. In the century since settlement, the community has endured disaster after disaster. Each year the community is worse off.

The colonists now believe that they have a solution: a dam to control the river. Only problem: they lack dam-building know-how. That’s where Sam Merritt, our protagonist, enters the narrative.

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So Thick Beset Wi Thorns and Briers

Shon’jir — C. J. Cherryh
Faded Sun, book 2

1978’s Shon’jir is the middle volume in SF Grandmaster C. J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy.

The Regul attempted to exterminate the mri, in order to prevent the alien mercenaries from selling their services to the human Alliance. Perhaps a prudent action, but ultimately unsuccessful. Two mri survive, prisoners of the Alliance forces occupying Kesrith. Only two, but Niun and Melein alone are sufficient to threaten the delicate peace between Regul and the humans.

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Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me

Cyteen — C. J. Cherryh
Cyteen, book 1

Grandmaster C. J. Cherryh’s 1988 Cyteen is arguably the magnum opus of her Alliance-Union novels. Together with its 2009 sequel Regenesis, Cyteen gives fans their most detailed look at Union, the first system-spanning nation independent of Earth.

Ariane Emory is a Special, one of a handful of geniuses who stand out even in a polity established by the brightest of Earth’s star-faring bright. She is one of the people who have made Union what it is: a dystopic state run by interlocking self-selected oligarchies to whom the phrase “checks and balances” is a joke. It is a galactic power utterly dependent on mass-produced, mind-controlled slaves. For Emory, secure in her power as head of the research facility Reseune, life is sweet.

As her frozen corpse proves, even a sweet life can come to an unexpected, abrupt end.

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No People, No Problem

Faded Sun: Kesrith — C. J. Cherryh
Faded Sun, book 1

C. J. Cherryh’s 1978 The Faded Sun: Kesrith was her fourth novel and the first in her Faded Sun trilogy. It would have been a fine choice for my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You series … save for the trifling fact that I managed to overlook it until the 1980s, after I had stopped being a teenager.

The alien Regul are fighting a losing war with the human Federation. That is, mri mercenaries are doing so, on behalf of their Regul clients. The mri are in many ways difficult: aloof, easily affronted, and inflexible—but they are extremely effective warriors. The Regul have nobody but themselves to blame for their losses. The Regul are bad bosses, the sort who insist on taking a hand in matters they do not understand, then blaming and punishing subordinates for the ensuing setbacks.

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Enter Morgaine

The Gate of Ivrel — C.J. Cherryh
Morgaine, book 1

C. J. Cherryh’s 1976 novel Gate of Ivrel wasn’t the first Cherryh novel that I read, but it was the first one I read that I liked.

Exiled for killing one brother and maiming the other, Vanye can expect a short and brutal life as an outcast. What he does not expect is that he will inadvertently free Morgaine Frosthair from the mysterious qujalin mound known to the backward locals as Morgaine’s Tomb. This was no tomb, but temporal trap. The artifact has held Morgaine suspended in time for an entire century, ever since her last grand adventure ended in disaster and rout.

Vanye’s reward is obligatory servitude to Morgaine. Decades may have passed since Morgaine last walked this world. but her task is not yet done.

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My first Cherryh

Downbelow Station — C. J. Cherryh
Company War, book 3

Although Cherryh was active in the 1970s, I think her 1981 Downbelow Station was my first exposure to her work in general and to her Alliance-Union setting in specific. Not that this is strictly speaking an Alliance-Union novel … at least not until towards the end.

I remember finding it a bit of a slog at the time. Clearly other readers disagreed with me, because it not only won the 1982 Hugo Award for Best Novel, but was named by Locus as one of the top fifty SF novels of all time.

The good news for humanity is that by the 24th century, humans have spread far beyond the confines of the solar system, first at sub-light speeds and later with FTL. The bad news is that the human worlds outside the solar system are caught in a vast interstellar war, with the predatory Earth Company on one side, the authoritarian slave-drivers of the Union on the other, and a handful of neutrals, mainly merchants and a few stations, caught in the middle.

The war between Company and Union has dragged on and on, far beyond the point the balance sheets would justify. Earth Company is ready to beg Union for peace. The problem is, the Earth Company’s Fleet is not ready to stand down, and it answers not to the Company now, but to Commander Conrad Mazian.

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C. J. Cherryh for SFWA Grandmaster

The Pride of Chanur — C. J. Cherryh
Chanur, book 1

One of the many ways in which the SF norm and I diverge is that I have an antipathy for fictional cats. This may sound odd, given the number of cats I have owned, from poor Othello [1] back in the 1960s to intellectually uncomplicated Ibid now. I think what bothers me is that SF authors seem to fetishize their fictional cats, painting them as little humans in fursuits, rather than as gleefully predatory obligate carnivores [2].To quote Pratchett:

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

(Although I think he is being unfair; there’s also the question whether cat-owners are just meat-puppets dancing on T. gondii’s strings [link])

C. J. Cherryh’s 1981 (1982 for the expanded version) Pride of Chanur might therefore seem to be an odd choice for me to review, since the hani are very clearly modeled on terrestrial lions and lions are, as we know, big cuddly cats who just to hug us all. Or ingest us. It’s one of those.

The Compact occupies a region far enough from Union/Alliance space to have been hithertofore overlooked by humans, but close enough for an unwary and unarmed merchant ship to blunder into it. The Compact comprises seven technologically sophisticated species, each shaped by its own evolutionary history. Despite significant communication challenges and behavioral differences, the seven have managed to coexist, if not always peacefully.

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After the Company Wars

Merchanter’s Luck — C.J. Cherryh
Company Wars, book 4

C. J. Cherryh was one of Donald Wollheim’s discoveries; DAW published Cherryh’s debut novel Gate of Ivrel in 1976. Wollheim being Wollheim, he not only insisted she be C. J. (and not Carolyn Janice), he added an H to her surname, Cherry, so it would not seem too girly.

Works like Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth won her the Campbell in 1976 and her short story “Cassandra” won her first—but not last!—Hugo Award in 1979. She is still a prolific and popular author. If SFWA were in the habit of giving the Grandmaster award to women, I would say Cherryh had an inside chance of winning it at some point.


1982’s Merchanter’s Luck is a sequel to her 1981 Hugo winner, Downbelow Station. Downbelow Station introduced readers to the Company War, a long, bitter war of independence pitting an avaricious Earth Company against a malevolent Union; hapless smaller merchants were caught in the middle. As this book begins, the war has concluded and most of the survivors are ready to set old grudges aside to begin rebuilding the interstellar economy.

For Sandor Kreje of Le Cygne, that’s an impossible task.

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