Merchanter’s Luck (1982), Rimrunners (1989), Tripoint (1992) and Finity’s End (1997) along with are all stories of individual spacers in the time immediately post-Downbelow Station. They’re all excellent books, and they are where I suggest people start with this universe, so that when they get to Downbelow Station they are already invested in the universe. The title of this post comes from “Sam Jones” a song that Cherryh wrote and Leslie Fish sings, badly transcribed at this link, and which I think of as another story in this set.
Imagine the universe of Traveler or Elite. Then imagine it made sense in depth and had up-close personal human stories happening in it. These books take place in merchant ships and space-stations. The very occasional living world glows like a jewel in the dark. The ships started off slower than light coming out from Earth building stations as they went, and built up a culture like that, but then pretty much at the same time they discovered other living planets, faster-than-light and rejuv—a drug that keeps people at about the biological age when they start taking it until they’re well over a hundred. Then came the War, between Earth and Union, with the merchanters caught in the middle, until the Treaty of Pell that ended the war and formed the Merchanter’s Alliance.
In these books we see ships and people of all kinds. There’s an independent whose family were killed in the War barely making it as a trading ship, and a thriving family ship where rejuv keeps so many generations alive that young people can’t hope to have useful work before they are themselves old. There are Union ships and Alliance ships that have been militarised. There’s a Mazianni supply ship and a beached Mazianni trooper who finds herself aboard an Alliance military ship with very mixed feelings. Most of all these are the stories of spacers, with their sleepovers on stations, their thin margins of profit, their shared experience of the deep dark and going FTL through Jump.
They are also all about the very human need to belong, to have someone to love and somewhere to call home.
More than anybody else, Cherryh has thought about what it would mean to live in space. I don’t know whether it’s scientifically plausible, but it feels entirely real in its nested implications. They don’t have day and night, ships and stations work all the time, in shifts, they have mainday and alterday which overlap when morning for one is evening for the other. The ships are communities, families, villages, matrilineal with children concieved with partners off the ship but growing up aboard. They dock at the stations and because they don’t have the rotation they use in motion to create gravity, they have to sleep off the ship. This leads to romance in Merchanter’s Luck and to rape and revenge in Tripoint. The way Jump stretches age means there’s a crew member in Rimrunners who started off on sublight ships, and is very significant for the protagonist of Finity’s End, who got left at a station while the ship went on.
These books all stand alone, with very little overlap of characters with any of the others, though there’s considerable overlap of locations and history. They can be read in any order. And every single one of them has a happy ending, or stops at a point that could in any case plausibly be taken for a happy ending.