C. J. Cherryh Reread

Taking it all back: C.J. Cherryh’s Pretender

Pretender takes off a few minutes after the end of Destroyer and shouldn’t be read alone. It has the hands down worst cover of any book in the series—most of the covers are very good, and do well at portraying the atevi as humanoid but not human aliens. This cover clearly takes “black skinned” as meaning “African-American”, doesn’t do well at showing the human-atevi size difference, doesn’t try on golden-eyed and chatoyant, and has the whole cover looking totally human and oddly racist. These are books about cultural differences between humans and aliens, and Cherryh has gone to some lengths to say that while they have a single culture humans in this world come in a range of skin tones, from not-quite-as-dark-as-atevi to very pale, and to mention that blond Bren has some Japanese ancestry. This book deserves a better cover.

While we’re talking about the mix of humans that make up Mospheira, it’s worth mentioning that I think they’re not descended from Americans but from Australian, Canadian or British English speakers. Bren calls his mother Mum, they believe in long paid holidays, and they see unions as a good thing.

Pretender has a slow start and then moves very fast. I wasn’t expecting Tabini to be restored until the third book of the trilogy. Bren spends most of the book trying to get Tabini to listen to his report of the events of Explorer, and at the climax he gives it to the legislature as justification for Tabini’s policies and Tabini’s authority. So space, and especially the kyo and Reunion, remains essential to the book, but we don’t visit space or learn anything new about it. I want to know how the Reunion people are settling down on the space station and I want to know how Sabin and Jase and Ogun are getting on. Mospheira seems stable here, and so does the ship—while the aishidit’at is still in chaos, with people shooting at Bren and the Guild itself in turmoil.

Algini’s high Guild status is a surprise—there’s nothing anywhere earlier that hints at it, and I was looking for it. But Bren didn’t know how these things worked then. There are, in any case, small inconsistencies between books. For instance Tabini’s dead chief-of-staff is Eidi in Defender, Edo, in Destroyer and Edi here, and there’s the issue of whether or not Bren has his own boat, and the issue of his apartment. In Pretender his own Maladesi apartment seems to have slipped Cherryh’s mind, only to return in the next two books as a major issue with the Farai. This sort of thing doesn’t matter much, and doesn’t even show if you read the books as they come out, I only notice on re-reading. It’s an incredibly rich and complex world and these are easy kinds of things to forget and I want to make excuses for her, but I still wish she’d got someone to fact-check the little things.

Cajeiri is terrific here all the way through, and there’s also some vintage Ilisidi. As boys and great-grandmothers go, they’re some of the best in all fiction. And we’re getting hints already that Cajeiri is caught between cultures, though Bren doesn’t see it, as the point of view always remains very close to Bren—though that will soon change.

And who is the pretender? Murini, obviously, but also Cajeiri, who could make his own claim independent of his father, with Ilisidi’s help. Then in the other sense of the word, Cajeiri is pretending to be a proper atevi and not a cultural-hybrid like Bren, and Bren is worried throughout the book that the advice he gave was no good, the whole collapse was his fault, and Tabini will disown him, that he has been pretending to know what he was doing, and still is.

On to Deliverer.

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.


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