Betrayer is the twelfth book in C. J. Cherryh's atevi series, which began with Foreigner in 1994. I've also heard the atevi books described as the -er/-or series, because they all have one word titles which end that way. This can create some confusion when trying to read them in order, especially since those titles at this point include Defender (2001), Destroyer (2005), Deliverer (2007), and Deceiver (2010). One worries that Cherryh may run out of appropriate nouns, because the titles are all very well chosen and reflect major themes and issues in the books. (Or, as an acquaintance put it: "If she ever falls back on Seducer, we're doomed.")
That said, this is one of the best science fiction series currently running. Foreigner was a good first contact novel, although not particularly innovative, but by this point the series has turned into a complicated set of thrillers involving political and factional turmoil, as well as a close and detailed examination of the troubled interactions between human and alien cultures. There are several human cultures, who do not always get along, two distinct types of alien, and multiple ethnic groups within the principal alien species, the atevi. The protagonist of the series, Bren Cameron, is employed as the embodiment of the cultural interface between the atevi and the colony of humans who live on the surface of the atevi planet, but his position has even greater ramifications: he acts as an intermediary and go-between for anyone who requests his services, regardless of their ethnicity, species, or faction. One of the major successes of the series is the continuously interesting way it portrays the shifting and uneasy balance between this all-consuming job and Bren's responsibilities towards his family, his attempts to have a life, and the inevitable personal attachments and loyalties that creep up on him.
Of course, the twelfth book is probably not the best place for a reader to begin sorting out those factions, loyalties, complications, and plot threads. The series is organized into trilogies, and Betrayer is not only the latest so far in a series that has progressed a long way, but also the end of a trilogy and consequently intended as something of a mini-climax. How does it stand, then, as an installment in a series that will proceed indefinitely beyond it, as a minor climax to a part of that series, and as a novel in its own right?
The answer to all three of those questions is identical at first reading: it's fine. It's not great, and it's not terrible. It . . . exists. Things happen in it. They do not, at this point, appear to be things that are as exciting as the space station diplomacy or as suspenseful as the kidnappings and treks through hostile territory of previous volumes, but the key phrase may be "at this point."
Betrayer picks up where the previous book, Deceiver, left off: Bren is at his estate, together with Cajeiri, the young heir to the lordship of the aijinate (the principal governing power of the atevi), and Ilisidi, Cajeiri's formidable great-grandmother. They are recovering from attacks from the Marid, a region to the south containing a hostile association of clans, who have recently been pushed back after a coup and brief seizure of the government. But the Marid has not been quiet for hundreds of years, even when its major powers are temporarily beaten. An attempted attack succeeds in kidnapping Barb, Bren's brother's lover (who also happens to be Bren's ex-girlfriend), causing Bren to go south after her. He ends up in the position of having to negotiate politely and diplomatically with people who dislike both change and humans intensely and would like to see him dead.
The problem is that none of this is new for Bren. He spends much of every book negotiating with people who dislike both change and humans intensely and would like to see him dead. The emotional crux of Betrayer is the ways Bren needs to change himself in order to carry out his diplomacy, and the ways in which these changes conflict with the atevi emotional structure he has built with the people he lives among. Atevi do not have the same emotions humans do and will not react in the same ways to things humans consider reasonable. Instead of love, or commitment to a cause, or fellow-feeling, the atevi have man'chi, an emotion which resembles loyalty but is both stronger and more precise. It is not possible for an ateva to have genuinely divided loyalties without being a sociopath; they are faithful to specific clans and liege lords in a biologically mandated feudal system. Bren's position as a cultural interface has required him to behave for many years as though he has man'chi towards Tabini, who is the ruler of the aijinate. However, since Bren is human, he cannot actually have man'chi, and the emotions he feels and acts on are personal friendship and a commitment to political stability on the continent. His desire to end the interminable guerilla warfare between the aijinate and the Marid, as well as his intention to rescue Barb and escape with his own life, lead him to assist in figuring out a peace proposal that would be genuinely advantageous to the Marid as well as to the aijinate, and to argue for it with real emotional sincerity.
Bren's apparently divided loyalties might cause serious problems with Tabini, with Ilisidi, whom Bren also values as a friend, and with the atevi bodyguard Bren always has with him, one of whom is his lover and all of whom are by this point his family. But these actions on Bren's part, while significant, feel like an only slightly greater shift in self than the ways we've seen Bren change for the sake of diplomacy in earlier books. The greatest point of tension, the moment when he has to tell his bodyguard that he has begun arguing the interests of their hereditary enemy, does not come very late in the book and appears to be resolved fairly easily: both his bodyguard and everyone else he's worried about basically say that, since Bren is human, they have never expected him to act like an ateva, and they know that his deepest loyalties are in their best interests. It's true that this is probably only a seeming resolution, but some obvious negative ramifications to a set of decisions which have been represented as requiring serious soul searching would have reinforced the sense that the plot of this book matters. Bren's actions really should cause the atevi around him to find him alien and distressing on a deep level, and we don't see any signs of that. This is an almost book-breaking flaw: it feels profoundly out of character for atevi culture as we have known it.
In addition, there is a secondary viewpoint following Cajeiri, as there has been for this entire trilogy, and while it's a refreshing and entertaining shift which is pleasant to read for its own sake, Cajeiri doesn't get much to do in this book. It almost feels like a point of view that could be done away with altogether, that would only be missed for its voice.
On the other hand, it is entirely possible that several books from now the situation will have changed so completely that the reader will be able to perceive elements of this book, which are currently totally invisible, with a great deal more accuracy. Cherryh does this a lot in this series. In Conspirator (2009), at the beginning of this trilogy, Bren is kicked out of his apartment because a minor Marid clan have claimed it, and this causes him to go on vacation to his estate, which precipitates the events of that book. In the next book, Deceiver, we find out that the clan had a political motive for taking the apartment, which drives many of the events in that book. And in Betrayer, we discover that renegade elements associated with the clan in question had an entirely different set of motivations for taking over the apartment, and all three sets of motivations—the surface, the subsurface, and the utterly buried—are plausible when you know enough about the political situation. Which means that Cherryh has now gotten three novels out of one apartment grab, and in the first of them that particular plot element was played almost entirely for comedy. Bren's real estate woes certainly would not, when Deceiver came out, have been anyone's first guess as the propellant of the entire trilogy.
Betrayer, then, simply cannot be adequately judged as a part of its larger series right now. It's not even possible to tell at the moment whether it will be a better read after it has a sequel—Deceiver wasn't very interesting at first read, but when reread after Betrayer, different plot elements jumped into focus, the emotional emphases shifted in light of what came later, and it became, retroactively, a much more tightly-planned and enjoyable book. There are a great many things in Betrayer that Cherryh could easily pick up and riff on, as well as many, many more details that seem too minor for a reader even to register yet. Three books from now, Betrayer may have spectacularly improved, and it may well be more of a climax to its trilogy than it is at present. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but it is wishful thinking based on what Cherryh has already done and the way that she works with this universe. This could be a brilliant novel that we simply do not yet have the information to read correctly.
As a novel in isolation, however, as I've said, Betrayer is only fine. The apparent lack of purpose of the Cajeiri point of view, the way that Barb gets home without too much fuss, the lack of negative consequences to Bren's decisions (apart from him having to walk home through hostile territory in a way we've already seen him do more than once in the series)—there just isn't much here to keep a reader seriously invested in the stakes, or to convince us that the plot is more than a retread of elements from the other books. It's worth reading if you care about the characters; Ilisidi in particular is a force of nature, a woman of incredible subtlety and force, and Cajeiri is, as always, charming. It's worth reading if you enjoy wrapping your mind around layer upon layer of factional maneuvering, and if you are fond of Cherryh's sentence level writing, which is as usual flowing, precise, and full of alien words that clearly come from a well-designed and euphonious constructed language. It's worth reading if you follow this series and care about what Cherryh may be setting up for the future, and it's worth reading if you like trying to figure out what application the title has to the book. (In this case, the betrayer could be Bren; he certainly thinks so and it's an interesting spin on his actions. It could also be pretty much anybody else, which is fairly standard for the atevi.)
But as a reading experience when there are no other books waiting after it, in a series where there are long expected plot developments that have been playing gun on the mantelpiece for more than a trilogy now—seriously, we were promised an alien invasion quite a large number of books ago—Betrayer is best summarized as mildly disappointing.
Lila Garrott's poetry and fiction have appeared in Not One of Us and Mythic Delirium, as well as other venues. She is currently engaged in a project in which she reads and reviews a book every day for a year, which can be followed at rushthatspeaks.livejournal.com or rushthatspeaks.dreamwidth.org. Her hair is blue and her eyes are brown.