Mar 17 2010 5:59pm

Grimmer than grim: C.J. Cherryh, The Chronicles of Morgaine

C.J. Cherryh is one of my favourite writers. She’s very versatile and extremely prolific—she’s written science fiction and fantasy in many different worlds and styles. Gate of Ivrel (1976), Well of Shiuan (1978), Fires of Azeroth (1979 and Exile’s Gate (1988) have been published as the Chronicles of Morgaine and now as the Morgaine Saga. They’re early work, and they’re not where I’d suggest starting with Cherryh, but I like them. What they’re most similar to in feel is the Fortress books.

This is science fiction with a strong fantasy feel. Each book starts with the explanatory frame explanation, without which you couldn’t possibly guess at the wider situation. Briefly, the alien qhal discovered a gate on a moon by which they could travel instantly to other worlds. They built a system of gates and used them to travel not just in space but in time. Then someone went backwards in time and reality collapsed. Humans, who had been tangled by the qhal, discovered the gates and sent out a mission to close them and prevent reality collapsing further. Morgaine is the last survivor of this mission, and she’s grimly determind to keep on with it no matter what it takes.

Gate of Ivrel is told from the point of view of Vanye, who Morgaine claims under the custom of ilyn, which makes him her servant for a year. From Vanye’s perspective, a hundred years before Morgaine appeared on his world and led an army into nothing—they vanished—and then she vanished herself. From hers, it has been an eyeblink.

The good thing about these books is the cultures and the effects of time and Morgaine on them. The hundred years in Gate of Ivrel becomes a thousand on the world of Well of Shiuan, where the survivors of the lost army have legends about their home and Morgaine. The cultures and expectations of the cultures are very solid. The dilemmas feel very real. Morgaine is relentless but she’s also on the side of good, closing the gates and preventing all reality from imploding really is more important than ethics—and this is one of the things that makes the stories feel like fantasy, that kind of absolute is a staple of fantasy and rare in SF.

If the qhal were the technologically advanced race we’re told they were, why is every single one of the worlds we see feudal and at a medieval tech level, even the ones where there’s been no influence? The only tech we see is what Morgaine carries, and the only tech that’s ever working anywhere is the Gates. I can believe in gates that let you step between worlds, and even ones that let you step between times—people are always saying this about FTL anyway—but the ability to memorize someone and recreate them as they were but with their memory, and to transfer personality between bodies, seems an odd thing to go with that. It makes them seem more fantasy-like, and allows the whole theme of possession and identity, but the more I think about it the less comfortable I am with it.


The cultures on the different worlds are all different but all solid and plausible. We see Andur-Kursh where qhal are killed on sight and considered witches. We then see Shiuan where the remnants of the lost army are either outright enslaved or barely independent of halfling khal. Then we see Shathan which is a land at peace, with men and qhal living in (feudal) harmony and the power of the gates being used for good—and Morgaine still has to close the gate, after having brought havoc with her from Shiuan. And then in Exile’s Gate we see a world with humans losing to qhal.

Real spoilers now—the first three books deal with the tormented Liell/Roh, who has taken over body after body and whose early memories are bad dreams of Morgaine, who wants to be Roh and yet can’t completely resist what else he is. The first three are one story, the consequences of the hundred-year ago battle in Andur-Kursh, as they spread across three worlds. All three of the protagonists are tormented—Vanye by his oath, Morgaine by her relentless need to close gates, and Roh by his possession. They also seldom have a breathing space, and Vanye goes through horses like candy. The weather is usually awful. There are enemies all around and nobody can trust anyone.

And that’s the problem with these books—they’re too grim. They’re good, but they’re also unrelievedly dark. The effect of reading all four of them together made me feel really down. I recommend spacing them with something lighter and fluffier.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Alex von Thorn
1. Alex von Thorn
The gates are like the transporters in Star Trek, which have been used in similar ways to edit people, particularly to restore them to earlier conditions. Plus they can connect across time (in a way that almost destroyed the universe and is the reason for Morgaine's quest), making it possible to capture a person's state from an earlier time. The setting is feudal because the advanced civilization was destroyed by the earlier apocalypse, the humans haven't been allowed to advance and control of the gates creates an extremely hierarchical society among the qhal.
Matthew Brown
2. morven
(warning: spoilery)

I absolutely love these books since I read them at fourteen or so. Yes, they are unrelentingly depressing in most ways. Books about a hopeless quest are such, and Morgaine's quest is, fundamentally, hopeless. She's the last survivor (as far as she knows, anyway; there's no way to tell for sure if that's true), and in every world she encounters there is mortal danger. Sooner or later, one of them will kill her. It almost happened in Andur-Kursh, and it also almost happens in Shathan, with a few less major scrapes in other places. She's something more than human, but she's by no means immortal in terms of survival, even if she does not age.

Yet -- they are also books about hope, and redemption, and love, against long odds. After all, in our world, are the odds not really long and the quest hopeless anyway? Our victories are what we learn and earn and sieze despite that.

Vanye embodies Trust, and Morgaine Distrust; the crowning moment of the original three is when Morgaine abandons her distrust to allow Roh to live, trusting him to keep his word, remain human, and allow the Gate to die. Love conquers distrust, and all three of that triad grow in the experience.

The fourth book is not bad, but perhaps was kind of unnecessary, in that it's an addendum on a tale that finished as much as it ever could after Fires of Azeroth, and if anything left more questions open after it than it started with. Still, there are beautiful scenes in it, and I do not regret it.

Perhaps the most uncertain choice made there was to allow Vanye and Morgaine's relationship, a matter of chaste courtly love in the first three books, to become a sexual one. It has interesting repercussions, of course -- Vanye proceeds to make a total hash of things afterward, in the belief that, now their relationship has moved to a different level, he has more responsibility to protect Morgaine from things.

There's also the revelations about Morgaine's parentage in there -- that's one of the ways it leaves more questions unanswered. Cherryh decided to make it more clear that Liell's accusation about Morgaine -- that she, like him, had taken other bodies over the years -- was untrue. But the revelation that there was an older race, to the Qhal as the Qhal were to humans, and that Morgaine is half that, opens up a whole bunch of things that I'd have liked to see dealt with some more.

I do wonder why Cherryh, years after the initial three, wrote one more. It's kind of an odd decision, to do that and then never take it further. I wonder if, perhaps, she was inspired by working on the Gate of Ivrel graphic novels to do more in that universe (the timing is right), but the failure of that project disheartened her? I feel that might be the case because Exile's Gate doesn't feel like the typical much-later coda novel -- it has more of a feel of something Cherryh intended to continue.

This story is one of Cherryh's earlier works, and she's said before that Gate of Ivrel, her first published book, is the descendent of something she began writing as a teenager. In that sense, it's one of her most derivative series; it owes a lot to Andre Norton, particularly in the Gates, and in many ways Morgaine herself is a clear gender-switched Elric -- gloomy, tormented, white-haired, of an elder race, with a sword that sucks, instead of souls, whole bodies into it.

However, the true joy of Cherryh is the characters, and you can see a lot of Cherryh's character tropes even here; her tormented, over-thinking, over-emotional men and her cold, driven women.

Jo, did you notice the parallel to The Paladin in Exile's Gate — the most hopeless part in The Paladin, when Taizu and Shoka are being chased and on the run, and the rain is pouring down and they're developing colds from the damp and the stress, is very like the start of Exile's Gate, with Morgaine and Vanye in a similar situation. I think those two books were written around the same time.

I think most of these worlds will be better places with the Gates gone; they will get to evolve and grow, without that over their heads, except for Shiuan, which is a hopeless case it seems. Andur-Kursh will be, I think, and so will Azeroth / Shathan.

Anyway, this is a series I return to again and again. But then I like depressive.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Morven: I hadn't noticed that. She really has an amazing range.
Jamie Watkins
4. Treesinger
CJ Cherryh has always been one of my favorite writers. I actually think that I own every book that she has written. Because I am broke, I have begun re-reading my library. A couple of months ago I dusted off my copy of the Book of Morgaine. It has been so long since I read these books, I read them when I was in high school, that I actually forgot exactly what they were about. Oh, I remembered the gates and the white hair - shades of Elric and the black sword but not the whole plot. I found the character of Vanye and his search for redemption to be very compelling. I was amazed at how good these novels were. I had forgotten how the first three were all tied together. After finishing Exile's Gate I wanted more and could see where the series could continue. I was actually considering writing to Ms. Cherryh to ask her to write another Morgaine book. Right now, I think that these are among her best novels. Too dark? I don't know about that, the loneliness and distrust that makes up the fabric of Morgaine's life has just been written so well that the reader shares it. I like the fact that these novels aren't just about ultimate good versus the ultimate evil.
Tony Zbaraschuk
5. tonyz
Cherryh is pretty much always highly concentrated and intense and with a great deal of darkness in the books, if you think about the background in depth.

And yet these are some of my favorite books of hers, second I think only to Cyteen. Morgaine is intense and driven, but understandable; Vanye is confused and heart-torn, but a workable gate by which the readers can view the universe. And, yes, there are moments of redemption (Vanye's brother letting him go, the qual in Fires of Azeroth understanding what must be given up.

There's a sense in which the qual are elves (another way the books feel like fantasy) -- tall, thin, pale, magical (as the folk around them see them, even if it really is remnant superscience), and the reality collapses caused by backtiming are, I think, adequate explanation for the lousy state of affairs. It's also possible that Morgaine has already dealt with the high-tech worlds, or that she's deliberately picking low-tech ones to close as many Gates as possible, or simply that high-tech is a low-probability environment and that backtiming more often wipes out low-probability events...

I, too, would really like to see what happens after [i]Exile's Gate[i/].
Alex von Thorn
6. NancyM
I've been waiting for CJ Cherryh to come up so I could ask where to start with her work. I've read Hammerfall and some of Pride of Chanur, and not much enjoyed either. Should I try something else or be resigned to the fact that not everything you recommend will be to my taste (although so much has been!)?
Matthew Brown
7. morven
I suspect you were awaiting a reply from Jo, Nancy, but I'll try. It really depends, though, what kind of reader you are, what kind of works you like. If you like fantasy in terms of style, there are few places better than this — technically science fiction, but only the introductions and our recognizing Morgaine's sidearm as a laser pistol really give that away.

If you like sci-fi that's about people and societies, Cyteen is great, and I don't think you'll need any background in her 'verse to be able to "get it".

For a more spaceship-oriented one, Downbelow Station is the famous one, but I think Rimrunners is a better novel.

One possibility as to why all the worlds are so low-tech; it's quite likely that the higher-tech worlds were Gate nexuses, more travelled, more bound in to the general reality that got shredded. Only the smaller places remained.

Another part of it is that the qual (whatever spelling is used on each world) are eventually done in by their poor fertility and the decline of their kind, and are not willing to take humans in and teach them.
j p
8. sps49
Definitely grim, as is Downbelow Station. But, as we have already said about Stephen R. Donaldson, very good. And cool. And the payoffs, though looong in coming, usually make the reading well worth it.

I must be in the minority on Cyteen. I finished it, but never got into it and haven't reread it. I don't know why; Cherryh's "people and societies" are usually a draw for me.
Alex von Thorn
9. Doug M.
@Morven, Vanye and Morgaine are indeed Trust and Distrust -- nice catch!

Nobody has mentioned it, but Cherryh won the Campbell (Best New Writer) way back in 1977. She was the first Campbell winner to have written no short works: the award was given entirely on the strength of her first two novels, Gate of Ivrel and Brothers of Earth. Brothers of Earth is fairly minor, so I think it's fair to say that she won it for Gate of Ivrel. She beat the late Jack L. Chalker, M.A Foster, and Carter Scholz.

I have a purely subjective, completely non-verifiable suspicion that what put Cherryh over the top for the Campbell was the gorgeous Michael Whelan cover for Gate of Ivrel. This was back when nobody knew about Whelan, so DAW was able to hire him cheap. Whelan was young and still finding his talent -- if you google up that cover, it's basically a Frank Frazetta pastiche. But it's great stuff anyway. And it stood out with particular force at the time; this was back in the middle '70s, when SF paperback covers mostly pretty bad.

Doug M.
Matthew Brown
10. morven
Ah, that's because I'm too young to remember that; I was only born in '73 and didn't start reading Cherryh until about 1988 or so.

But yes -- great covers. Striking ones on some of the reissues and omnibuses, too, like Methuen's in England and the 1990 Mandarin reprint.
Alex von Thorn
11. Doug M.
Some random thoughts:

-- Cherryh was one of the last female authors to write F&SF under the "two initials so you're not obviously female" paradigm. (Her fellow Campbell nominee, M.A. Foster, was another.)

-- @ Morven, the Elric influence is obvious. But it can't be what she imagined as a teenager, because she was already well into her 30s when Gate of Ivrel was published -- she left her teens before Elric ever showed up. Perhaps she dreamed up the world(s) first, and added the character later.

I note in passing that the "sword that makes people disappear" makes a reappearance in Walter Jon Williams' recent _Implied Spaces_ -- a book that has an oddly retro feel to it, incidentally.

-- Speaking of influences, there are a lot of superficial similarities between this and the Darkover books. You have your lost colony lapsed back to medievalism, your blurring of F and SF, your slender elflike woo-race, strong female characters, usw. However, (a) I don't think there's a cross-influence -- rather, it's more common drinking from the same wells, and (b) despite the superficial similarities, the two series could hardly be more different in approach and tone.

Two particular thoughts on that. One, Bradley's characters tend towards a certain amount of hand-wringing and agony. And while there are strong females, there's also a continuing conflation of female sexuality, female power, and danger. Nothing could be more different from Cherryh's Morgaine, who is powerful and dangerous, but mostly sexless for the first couple of books. She's pretty much a cold, driven engine of necessary destruction, and her gender is hardly an issue (for her) until later in the series.

The other: I mentioned earlier that Bradley's Darkover books had a very fannish feel to them -- even on first read, as a teenager, I was sure these books had been written by someone who was a fan. As I said, a hostile reviewer could describe them as a series of emo fantasies where Special People worked out their Special Problems.

This is /so very not the case/ with this series. Morgaine is special, but you don't want to be her. You don't want to be anyone, really. There's little or no wish-fulfillment. This isn't a world you want to escape to. And while Darkover never changes much, the whole point of this series is that Morgaine is going through the worlds as a Shiva-like agent of cosmic destruction and salvation, leaving devastation and the possibility of renewal in her wake. I don't say Cherry's approach is better per se (though I like it), but it could hardly be more different.

I noted that Bradley was drenched in fan culture from very early on -- she was a very active fan long before she started writing, and she stayed surrounded by fellow fans all through her life. Cherryh, on the other hand, had almost nothing to do with fans until she started writing. (She was a schoolteacher in Oklahoma City, where organized fandom barely existed.)

I think this has some bearing on her subsequent writing career. A lot of Bradley's output can be read as fanservice. That's pretty much never the case with Cherryh -- especially not in her early stuff. Not only does she not write to please fannish expectations, she seems completely unaware that such things exist. And I think that's part of what makes these books so... bracing.

Doug M.
Helen Cousins
12. naath.sedai
I found the second almost unreadable (relentless swampyness, combined with the very sudden change-of-cultures from the first), but enjoy the series overall for all that it's Very Grim. Maybe I just like Grim.

I'd have really liked to see more of the frame-story, and perhaps to find out what happens at the end of Morgaine's mission. But I suspect it's more intriguing for the not-knowing.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
NancyM: If you didn't like The Pride of Chanur then maybe Cherryh isn't for you. You could try Foreigner or Cyteen, but I'm not saying this with any confidence.

Doug M: M.A. Foster is "Michael Anthony". If initials always disguised a girl, it wouldn't be much of a disguise!
Alex von Thorn
14. Doug M.
D'oh. You're right.

Doug M.
Alex von Thorn
15. Foxessa
Grim ... oh, yes. How Cherryh loves to torture her male protagonists!

But nothing in her ouvre approaches the relentless misery and hopelessness of the Faded Sun trilogy!

Love, C.
Tony Zbaraschuk
16. tonyz
NancyM @6: Cherryh has many books and there seems to be rather a division among readers; some like some, others like others.

For me: Cyteen, the Morgaine books, Paladin, Rimrunners, the two Arafel books are all very interesting. Foreigner and the Fortress books, not so much. If you don't like one set, you may like another.
David Lewis
17. dglewis
Funny, I absolutely drank in all the Foreigner books, and loved the Alliance/Union universe books, but could never get into Fortress. So it's maybe not as straightforward an alignment as tonyz says. Or maybe I'm just weird.
Estara Swanberg
18. Estara
@Nancy: I think the Foreigner books (you could also call it Atevi series I guess, after the aliens most prominently featured) would be a good approach if you enjoy a more action adventure, space opera-feel in your sf - she still has the great characters (for example, a 90-plus matriarch that is totally traditional, but also very power-savvy and rids her hunting animals when her traditional castle is attacked as if she was half her age at least - she loves having young bodyguards around her ^^) and the interesting themes (what do you do when you are the only human interpreter and have to live with aliens that simply do not have certain concepts and emotions that we have, but do have others we don't understand), but there is not as much darkness or hopelessness in the background.

None of the main characters so far have died, the interpreter point-of-view character actually has some growth and more grasp and we get an interesting insight in what might happen if a more numerous and powerful species was swamped with the fashions and technology of a technically further advanced species and how that would disrupt their traditions and all.

I think it's awesome space opera ^^, I do like my sci fi a bit lighter.

Or for a great fantasy standalone (Asian-based) - The Paladin.
Tikitu de Jager
19. tikitu
Sigh. Another to add to the "buy it if it ever crosses my path" list...

Actually this is such a regular feature of Jo's column that I wouldn't bother commenting, except that I just saw she made the Tiptree Honor List. Congratulations Jo!
Matthew Brown
20. morven
@Doug M: I'm not sure how much Morgaine herself in her final form was in the teenage-conceived version of this. I suspect more the worlds, the Gates, the chaos. There's a short story in one of her collections that's focussed on a character who experiences the dislocation and shredding of space and time when everything starts to go -- I suspect that one's closer to the original idea.

@Estara: For some reason, I never managed to get into the Foreigner books. I probably need to try them again, though; I may just have not been in the mental state to get far enough in to like them. I definitely agree with recommending 'The Paladin'. It's 'fantasy without magic', though, which bothers some and not others. The rules of reality are exactly our own. By the way -- hi! (We're both frequent commenters on Pat Hodgell's livejournal ...)

@Foxessa: Oh yes -- the Faded Sun books are, I think, the most depressing things she's ever written. I like them, but yes.

@naath.sedai: 'relentless swampyness' describes Well of Shiuan so well. The difference from the other two is that nothing good will happen to this world; here Morgaine is not a cleansing fire, because the world is still going to nothing but drown.
Alex von Thorn
21. NancyM
Thanks for the recommendations, everyone.
Tony Zbaraschuk
22. tonyz
Different people like different Cherryh books. It's not that people are either in Group A or in Group B, and each group corresponds with a well-defined set; it's that Person A may like works A, B, and C, while Person B likes works B, C, D and Z, and person C likes works C, D, E, F. Et cetera.
Mary Aileen Buss
23. maryaileen
I bounced pretty hard off of the Chanur books and the Fortress series, but I liked all of Cherryh's other universes. I second the recommendation for the Foreigner series. Also the Alliance/Union books, which can be started just about anywhere. I read them in random order as I came across them. Downbelow Station wasn't my cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed all the others.
Jo Walton
24. bluejo
Tikitu: Thank you! Yes, it's very cool to be on the Tiptree Honor list.
Wesley Parish
25. Aladdin_Sane
I loved the Chanur and the Mri books; haven't come across most of these others. Sounds like I'll have to start asking at my favourite bookshops.
Karen Ireland
26. warriorofworry
Cherryh, along with a couple of other authors, has a new site where she is selling some of her books as ebooks:
Alex von Thorn
27. Jack Tingle

C.J. Cherryh and M.A. Foster.

You know, maybe the reason I like the Morgaine books best of Cherryh's work is they're the most Foster-like.


Jack Tingle
Jamie Watkins
28. Treesinger
I haven't read it in a long time and I will have to add it to my list of re-reads but Hunter of Worlds used to be my favorite. No one makes you understand what it is to be an alien like Cherryh. I haven't read anyone else who can put the reader into an extra-terrestrial mindset like her. When I get into a good section I feel like the humans are the aliens. The Foreigner series will get you a good feel for her writing but I like the Merchanter-Alliance universe better. I, even, enjoyed the Angel-with-a-sword stories. The only books I really didn't like were the "Russian" ones, Rusulka, Yvenie (or something like that) and another Russian name. When I finished those, I felt cheated --Nothing happened! I will still read anything CJ Cherryh writes.
Jo Walton
29. bluejo
Treesinger: Chernovog is the other one. They're the only Cherryh series I've given up on. They're depressing and if there's a point I've missed it.

I will still read anything she writes too.
Clifton Royston
30. CliftonR
Shadow in Faerie (I think that's it's title) affected me much the same way as the Slav-esque fantasy novels. Come to think of it, I think there is something consistent in how Cherryh's frequent trope of the disoriented, disgruntled, and outmatched protagonist fails to work as well in her fantasy novels as it does in her science fiction novels.

As I recall Morgaine - though it's a while since I (re)read them - she may be facing impossible problems and impossible odds, but she never seems to feel confused and defeated.
Jo Walton
31. bluejo
Faery in Shadow. She apparently thinks it's funny. I like that one even less than the Rusalka ones, but at least it's only one volume.

It's a sign of how good Cherryh is that she can write something I hate that much and I still keep buying everything she writes.

I didn't bring that or the Rusalka books to Canada though, because I knew I wouldn't want to re-read them.
Bruce Cohen
32. SpeakerToManagers
I started reading Cherryh with "Brothers of Earth", and fell in love with "Hunter of Worlds". Jo, you're absolutely right, she has incredible range, from high fantasy ("The Tree of Swords and Jewels") to great space opera (the Alliance/Company universe) and on to truly remarkable stories of aliens ("Hunter of Worlds" and the Chanur books) and on to what I think are very poetic pieces reminiscent of Greg Bear's "The Nightland" or perhaps Cordwainer Smith ("Port Eternity" and "Voyager in Night" which are probably my favorites of all her works).

There's a quality in the Morgaine books that a lot of Cherryh's suspenseful stories share: a sense of the characters falling headlong through a really bad nightmare that they struggle vainly to overcome. It's a tone I think would not work well in most other writers' hands because it could easily be overdone, or appear to be a sequence of arbitrary plot devices. Cherryh at her best (and I think this includes the first 3 Morgaine books, though they have to be understood as early works) can make the action work, and make it's effect on the characters clear and compelling.

Of course, when I first read the trilogy, in the early '80s, I had some sort of flu bug and was running a a 102 F fever; I hunkered down in bed and spent three days doing nothing but drinking tea and broth and reading the books. I really can't say how much of my reaction to the books was the fever :-)
Alex von Thorn
33. bjvl
This is so fascinating!

I adored the Chanur and Arafel books, loathed the Faded Sun and Union/Alliance books. Loved The Paladin and Cuckoo's Egg. Can't stand the Morgaine books.

I think that tend to steer away from Cherryh because of the hopelessness in her books. I don't mind characters going though hell (Bujold's Mirror Dance and Memory are two of my favorite books) -- it's just with Cherryh I rarely feel like they get to come back *out* of hell.
Alex von Thorn
34. Hanneke
C.J. Cherryh does often have a darker tone in a lot of her fantasy books and series, both the Celtic and the Russian based ones. It may be more realistic - it's not realistic to expect all one's favourite people to survive every nasty and lethal situation they encounter intact and unscarred; and a battle won does not mean all the problems in the world or country will be solved, and society will change from oppressing the downtrodden to universal goodwill and equal opportunities for everyone in a short timespan.

Her storytelling skills are great; I love the insights into the characters, and their development from within, the very believable alien mindsets and societies, the breathless rush of the fast-paced action (in which her heroes, whether male or female, generally behave quite heroically, despite their internal doubts!), and so will read everything she writes at least once. Still, I read to relax, and like to keep a positive aftertaste when I finish a story, and some of her fantasies are too dark and end too somberly for me to want to reread.

In general, I have the impression that a lot of her science fiction has a less-dark background, and so I prefer those. People definitely can get into very dark situations, but in the end there is often at least a glimpse of hope for a better future.
I like the Chanur series, which is very fast-paced space opera with lots of believable aliens, and ends with some optimism; you can read just The Pride of Chanur and stop there for a satisfactory ending, but book 2, 3 and 4 form one long story-arc: if you stop that in the middle it won't give the emotional release.
The Heavy Time + Hellburner duo are pure science fiction about mining in the asteroid belt, with economic and political intrigues (at the start of the Alliance/Union universe), but still very much character-focused - they're available as ebooks from C.J. Cherryh directly at closed-circle(dot)net.
For someone wanting to try this style of her books, Merchanter's luck is a relatively short book in the same pure-SF universe, where the economic and political realities of a spacefaring civilisation are the backdrop for a single young surviving spaceman's drive to keep his family ship going - it ends on a hopeful note, though the young man's absolute lonelyness during most of the book has a big emotional impact, and the war in the background isn't finished.

I really love the Foreigner series best; this has the least-dark tone to the entire world/universe, in my feelings. It's very much a first-contact story, in which the main protagonists are of good intentions, and the society is set up to be basically at least somewhat fair. There are plenty of problems, misunderstandings, selfish people with bad agendas etc., but there is not the feeling of pervading darkness. There is a lot of political intriguing, and diplomatic thinking by the main character, but also quite a bit of fast-paced action, and very believable aliens. The series and the world develops: the focus starts close to the central translator-figure, and when you've come to understand how things work there, the world around him reveals another layer of added complexity, keeping the series moving and keeping us interested, and the aliens not-quite-predictable in their motivations and actions.
What gets some people off on the wrong footing, is that the first 100 pages (or thereabouts) of the first book consists of two separate 'prequel' stories, explaining how humans came to be stranded on this alien world, and how the very first 'first contact' went. After that, it's one continuing story of growing depth, divided into three-book story-arcs.
A small taste of the kind of story that's fully developed in the Foreigner universe can be found in Cuckoo's Egg, a stand-alone shorter story (novella?) about a first-contact situation between aliens and humans. If you can find it (it's on Audible), it's a good place to find out if you might like the Foreigner books.

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