Serpent's Reach is complicated and miserable even for a Cherryh book, and I like Cherryh a lot. I hadn't read it for a long time (see, complicated, miserable) and I picked it up again last week because people were talking about it on the Merchanter's Luck thread (great comment thread) and I didn't remember it well enough to say anything. I don't like it any more than I ever did, and it took me a long time to read because I kept finding myself not wanting to pick it up.
It's an early book (1980), so it doesn't have the lightness of touch of Cherryh's more mature work. It's set in the Alliance-Union universe but much later than most of the other books in that setting. There are some worlds that have aliens on them, the majat. Some humans have come from Alliance and settled with the majat, and helped the majat spread to other worlds. These majat worlds are quarantined from the rest of humanity, though there is some trade at an edge world, Istra, and the trade is essential to both sides. The humans consist of Kontrin, made essentially immortal by the majat; betas, humanity leading ordinary lives but whose first generation were psychsetted azi; and azi, produced by the betas, raised and programmed on deeptape, and dead reliably at forty. The majat are hive beings, sharing mind and memories. The Kontrin feud, the majat feud, the betas try to get on with their lives and not get in the way, and the azi have no choice, ever.
No spoilers yet.
Raen is a Kontrin, born to immense wealth and power. She's fifteen when her whole family is killed. She takes refuge with the hives, and tries to take vengeance. Jim is an azi she wins in a game. We spend most of the book with their points of view, but we also dive into the heads of enemies, aliens, and the ancient and ailing Moth, leader of Kontrin council.
Cherryh's worlds are always believable, she's very good at that. This is in some ways like Forty Thousand in Gehenna in a different key. One of her most persistent themes is how people and aliens shape each other, and here we have another isolated situation. I don't have any problem believing in any of what happens—I just have trouble reading it because I don't enjoy it. I don't know if it's actually more miserable than the books of hers I really like, but it certainly seems that way. What's good about this is the texture of society, the way it's all solidly thought through, the convincingness of it. What's bad is that I feel sorry for Raen and Jim, but I don't especially want to spend time with them. They are authentic products of a very strange world, and it's great that they really are that, but a pity they're not more likeable. Cherryh got much better later at having characters that I find sympathetic.
SPOILERS COMING UP, and there are likely to be spoilers in comments
It's odd that this is Alliance, using azi and engineering a society this way. That's a Union thing. OK, it was an extreme situation when they came in, but still... odd. This is an early book, though set late, maybe it was before she'd worked it all out. But maybe it's what an Alliance corporation would do, given azi. Or maybe it's after Alliance have become horrible. The dying at forty thing is also in Port Eternity. It may be something where she had a better idea later, or it may be a consequence of the situation in Cyteen where azi weren't routinely rejuved, and if not rejuved, why live? Ick. And the azi are totally slaves here, no gesture at anything else—and no Reseune to look out for them as much as it actually did. Those pits, my goodness.
I don't quite understand what happens with Jim getting Raen's mindset from her tapes. She isn't an azi... and even if she was, as per Cyteen the tapes are software to run on very specific biochemistry. Can anyone explain this to me?
The majat seem very tame aliens for Cherryh, very conventionally SF hive aliens. She got better at aliens later too.
I find the whole end quite nightmareish. Cherryh normally manages something that can be seen as a happy ending if you squint at it, but not here.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. 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.