May 13 2010 3:51pm

Sweets, spacestations and intrigue: C.J. Cherryh’s Precursor

Precursor is the first book in the third Atevi trilogy, and it’s where I go from enjoying the books to really really loving them. (It’s also where I started owning the books in hardcover, which is coincidence, as Precursor was a gift.) I think it would be possible to start reading here, and I encourage those of you who bounced off Foreigner but generally enjoy Cherryh to try it. This is not an uncomfortable book at all, though it has a break-neck pace near the end.


Three years have passed between volumes, the shuttle is flying, and we begin with a rare glimpse of Mospheira, where Bren has lost a cuff-link. We even see Barb, for the first time. Bren doesn’t want Barb, he doesn’t want the island, he wants to rush back to the mainland and see Jase before Jase leaves for the station and the ship. There’s a Mospheiran delegation going aloft, Bren’s suspicious but helpful. Then he finds out that he’s going, to take over the station for Tabini. At first all goes well, he makes an agreement, it seems to be acceptable to everyone. Then there’s a mutiny on the ship, lies, excitement, drama, and everything comes down to a last minute sort out.

I can’t quite analyse why I like this one so much more. It may be that atevi are familiar here, among the strange human factions Bren’s trying to navigate. (If this is the case, it won’t work for people starting here, but that would be useful to know anyway.) I think it may be that Bren is now mostly confident and knows what he’s doing. He has a staff he can trust, he has Banichi and Jago. And I love the little details: Narani hanging pictures and putting out a dish for message scrolls in the bare corridors of the station. Bribing the crew with sweets. The unexpected suggestion of robots. Or maybe I am just a sucker for space stations—which is true, I am. It doesn’t take much. Give me a book with a space station and I am happy. I also very much like the fact that Ilisidi being an old woman and a grandmother gives her huge credibility with the crew.

One of the themes of the series is technological progress, but it’s all been told and not shown up until now, most of it happening either before the story or in between. Here, with the shuttle being flown, and with the robots and the specially designed galley, we actually see some of it in action.

Who is the precursor here? There are a lot of possibilities. The station itself, mothballed for centuries,  is the precursor of atevi presence in space. Bren is the precursor of Ilisidi, taking over the station. Ilisidi is the precursor of Tabini. The station is the precursor of a much wider space possibility. Phoenix is the precursor of other ships. And for that matter the book is the beginning of a new trilogy...

This is a terrific book, it’s got everything I like about Cherryh. I raced through it, which isn’t true of the first three, and I can’t wait to get on to the next.

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.

This article is part of C. J. Cherryh Reread: ‹ previous | index | next ›
J.B. Zimmerman
1. J.B. Zimmerman
I, too, love this series and now religiously pick up the hardcovers. Precursor is indeed a bit of a sea change. I think that in my case, the reason my feelings for the series jumped here was that Cherryh returned, finally, to the solid spacefaring environment she has spent years building and tuning. The woman just writes really, really tight starship-fu. More than nearly any other envisioned future, I can see in my mind's eye her shuttles and stations and starships working - such that there is a minimum of 'deep magic' in the illusion. I have the feeling that if I were to pull off a panel on the Phoenix (or the Pride of Chanur, or ECS5 Norway, etc.) that ninety-nine percent of what I'd find would make perfect sense to me. Her ships and environments are built, not imagined into existence with an airy wave of the hand.

While the Foreigner series is built, too, its build is societal and anthropological - not technological. The premise is sci-fi, but up until Precursor the action isn't, not really. But then we get to here, and everything changes. Again.
Emmet O'Brien
2. EmmetAOBrien
I think you want to change "third" to "second" in your first line.
J.B. Zimmerman
3. goshawk
See, that's funny. Because I absolutely devoured the first trilogy, then bounced off this one for a good few months. I got back into it by starting from the first book again and reading straight through from there until the ninth book (I spent a lot of money on books over that two-week period, and started getting odd looks for phrasings like "by no means").

*shrug* I guess I really loved the atevi machinations (machimi? =P) on the planet, and I felt cheated to move up to the station. Once I got past that, I loved the ship-machinations just as much, but.

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