Significant spoilers included.
The difficulty with reviewing a novel many books in to a long-running series—and Visitor is the seventeenth volume in C.J. Cherryh’s ongoing Foreigner series, a series that shows no signs of coming to an end—is a difficulty of audience. Should I assume that everyone reading this review is already familiar with the series? Or should I attempt to provide a full context?
The latter, at this stage, is the next best thing to impossible. So much of Visitor — all of it, in fact—relies on what has gone before to make sense: the complex nature of the position the human Bren Cameron, paidhi, Lord of Najida, and Lord of the Heavens, holds in atevi society; the nature of his relationships with Ilsidi, grandmother of Tabini-aiji, and with Cajeiri, Tabini’s nine-year-old heir, and also with the humans resident on the atevi planet, the human-atevi Alpha Station, the human starship Phoenix, and the humans recovered from Reunion Station, whose encounter with another alien race, the kyo, brings a whole new set of problems down for Bren to deal with. Also central to much of Visitor are Cajeiri’s relationships—his association—with four Reunioner children, and with the kyo Prakuyo an Tep.
To whom or to what does the Visitor of the title apply? Is it to the kyo and their ship, arrived unlooked-for at Alpha Station? Is it to Bren, perpetually a visitor between cultures, a translator and a bridge, whose skills are absolutely vital in talking to and coming to an understanding with the kyo? Or is it to Guy Cullen, the human prisoner Bren encounters aboard the kyo starship, who is not from any of the human communities with which Bren is familiar: no, Cullen is from the humans with whom Phoenix and the humans on the atevi homeworld lost contact with centuries ago, a branch of humanity engaged in a war of annihilation with the kyo.
That’s a little bit of a revelation. And perhaps—perhaps—something of a game-changing one.
Most of Cherryh’s Foreigner novels have a very measured pace. Visitor has a fairly glacial one: the kyo do not actually arrive in person and Bren does not get involved in the politics of communication, until more than halfway through the book. Visitor lacks the engagement with atevi politics that has generally been the hallmark of previous volumes; it lacks, too, much engagement with human (Mospheiran, station, Reunioner, and ship-folk) politics. Nothing blows up, Bren isn’t even shot at once, or at risk of being shot at, and much of the first half of the novel consists of Bren worrying that he’s not at all up to the job of talking to the kyo once they arrive—a worry that at this point, the reader finds only remotely plausible. The stakes are low compared to those of previous volumes: in many ways, Visitor feels like it’s marking time, one long transition.
This is a Foreigner book. It does what Foreigner books do: gives one plenty of time with Bren and his problems. But this is far from the best of the Foreigner books, because (I might be an awful person) Bren doesn’t have enough problems to deal with in this one.
It could be that I’m biased in favour of the instalments with explosions and gunfire, though. I might be shallow that way.
Visitor is available April 5th from DAW Books.