C. J. Cherryh has always excelled at describing the alien. Whether her novels feature actual alien creatures (as in The Chanur Saga) or merely human beings so clinically detached from their peers that they might as well be from a different species (as in Cyteen), Cherryh's stories center on the experience of encounter—the moment an individual or a society collides with a culture strikingly different from their own. There are no group hugs in Cherryh's books, no convenient heroic acts that can make people get along, no easily taught values like "democracy" or "friendship." Instead, Cherryh's characters must navigate cultural minefields that all too frequently explode into violence.
Cherryh's Foreigner series, of which Deliverer is the latest installment, is easily her most successful exploration of this topic. Originally conceived as a collection of short stories documenting a sprawling history of human-alien interaction, the project instead found a novelistic focus, heart, and soul in the experience of Bren Cameron, a descendent of human spacefarers marooned on an alien planet. Bren occupies the dangerous position of paidhi, the official human-atevi translator and the only human allowed on the alien mainland. The stakes he faces are high: the last cultural misunderstanding on the planet exploded into a war that almost destroyed his people and resulted in humans being confined to a single island. As a condition of the peace treaty negotiated by the first paidhi, Bren's unenviable task is to "translate" human actions and technology to an utterly alien species, knowing that a single mistake could mean the death of every human on the planet.
If that wasn't hard enough, Bren's job, by definition, pulls him between two cultures. He lives surrounded by atevi he likes, but who have no concept of love and friendship, obeying instead the emotional impulses of instincts inaccessible to humans. Meanwhile, Bren's human relationships back on the island suffer from his long absences and immersion in alien culture. Whenever he returns to the island, he finds that the daily effort to hide his emotions in front of inscrutable atevi has become habitual, making him appear frighteningly cold and alien to his own people. As paidhi, Bren is thus a member of—and an alien to—both of the cultures he serves.
Luckily, Bren is not a self-pitying soul, but an earnest, "can-do" fellow, utterly dedicated to the survival of both societies. A charmingly humble protagonist, Bren worries about his perceived inadequacies and tries to compensate by doing the best he can in difficult circumstances. Whether he's resisting torture, dodging gunfire, or negotiating poisoned tea parties, Bren rises to the occasion with on-the-spot political analysis and deft maneuvers he considers barely adequate, but which other characters find impressive.
Deliverer is the ninth entry in the Foreigner series, and definitely not a book for newcomers. Cherryh does an admirable job in catching readers up with the events of the previous novel, but much of the emotional impact and narrative excitement of Deliverer relies on readers' familiarity with established characters and with the complex politics of Cherryh's setting. First-time readers, in other words, would be better off starting with Cherryh's original Foreigner trilogy, while readers who are already acquainted with Bren and the atevi will find this novel a pleasurable return to form after Bren's space-faring adventures in the Explorer trilogy. The Explorer novels, which followed Bren and his atevi companions into the political world of humans, lacked much of the originality of the stories based on the atevi homeworld. Cherryh reused character types and tropes from her Downbelow Station series and mired Bren in situations that he had little power to influence. By returning to the atevi homeworld in Deliverer and plunging Bren back into the political sphere he knows best, Cherryh has returned the Foreigner series to its roots while incorporating at least one new twist on the original formula.
Deliverer opens in the aftermath of a civil war, with Bren accompanying Tabini, the recently restored atevi leader, back to the mainland capital. While Tabini tries to consolidate his power, Bren works at putting out the political and personal brushfires that have erupted in his absence. Trouble comes from an unexpected quarter in the form of Tabini's 8-year-old son, Cajeri. Tabini, anticipating the problems that would emerge in the wake of the atevi's first space voyage, had sent his heir into space with Bren to keep the child safe from the coming political explosion. But nobody anticipated the degree to which the young atevi would become accustomed to human society. Instead of reintegrating smoothly into his native environment, Cajeri rebels against the expectations of atevi society and insists on acting as he did on a human-run spaceship. He pines after his human companions, and worse, shows signs of lacking the crucial instincts that everyone, including Bren, had assumed were hardwired into atevi psychology.
Cajeri, in other words, shows dangerous signs of being like Bren: a creature who can move between cultures but does not fully belong to either one. This is reflected in Cherryh's decision to split Deliverer's point of view between Bren and Cajeri, granting readers a rare insight into an atevi perspective. It is a striking departure from the usual format of the Foreigner series; and not only is it successful, but Cajeri's voice, being fresher, may strike readers as more engaging than Bren's.
The rest of the novel follows the classic Foreigner pattern of delicate political negotiations interrupted by unexpected crises. Bren, as usual, handles both tension-fraught social events and violent ambushes with quick-thinking competence, while Ilisidi, Tabini's draconian grandmother, provides the iron fist to the paidhi's velvet glove. The novel is a page-turner that quickly builds to a typically explosive conclusion in which, diplomacy having failed, violent confrontation must have its day.
I was disappointed to find that Bren's atevi bodyguards, Banichi and Jago, are mostly consigned to the background of the story. The new focus of the series appears to be on the relationship between Bren and the errant heir Cajeri, who feels he has more in common with Bren than with his own father. This is an intriguing direction for the series to take, and I am curious as to what Cherryh intends to do with the problematic figure of a "humanized" atevi heir. Cherryh continues her resolution to make Bren more of an action hero in response to concerns expressed in message boards about his passivity in Precursor. But while some readers will, no doubt, enjoy Bren in action mode, his involvement in physical confrontations stretches credulity at times. The paidhi is, after all, an incredibly important political figure whose value lies in his verbal rather than military abilities. It seems unlikely that his bodyguards would let him get into the situations he does, and the justifications offered for his involvement are weak.
More seriously, the decision to make Bren a more action-oriented character detracts from the originality of the Foreigner series. One of the great appeals of the first trilogy was that it used a translator as a protagonist, eschewing the more traditional combat-oriented heroes of science fiction in favor of a person whose ability to "save the world" came down to his ability to think and speak rather than throw a punch. For the most part, however, fans of the series will find Deliverer a comfortable book to slip into. Cherryh is back on familiar ground, in an established setting with well-liked characters and a plot that—perhaps a bit implausibly, in places—manages to propel both Bren and the reader into the front lines of massive social change.