Second verse, same as the first. C. J. Cherryh continues her top-selling Chanur saga in, I'm sorry to say, fairly perfunctory fashion. This is sequel-writing of the most obligatory sort, seemingly motivated by a publishing ethos that advocates ongoing series for no reason other than they're the best excuse to keep back catalogue titles in print beyond their natural shelf lives. What was good about The Pride of Chanur is just as good here, and what was bad about it is just as bad. Cherryh makes very little attempt to expand upon her saga's premise. The story here is more or less a rehash of what came before, and my criticisms of Cherryh's writing still hold.
I won't deny that Cherryh has a knack for dressing up her space operas in vivid details that display ample imagination. Alien races and their cultures are a specialty of hers, and there's no doubt that the fact the hani are cool cats accounts for an enormous chunk of this series' popularity. (I wonder just how many SF fans have pet cats named "Pyanfar" or "Hilfy.") But all that is art direction. Cherryh, damn it all, just isn't writing well here. As I stated in my review of Pride, comparing Cherryh's clunky prose to the gloriously precise writing of Asimov, Clarke, and Niven is like comparing an Edsel with a bad transmission to a Ferrari. Her writing is some of the most slipshod I've seen from a novelist of her stature. A space opera, even one with an intricate, serpentine plot, ought to be light, entertaining reading. It ought to fly by like an X-wing, leaving you breathless for more. Leave the Cliff's Notes for James Joyce.
To be fair, the book starts reasonably well. It opens a few years after Pride ends, when Pyanfar Chanur and her entire clan are down on their luck. The promised wealth, resulting from trade with the newly discovered human species, has not materialized. Chanur has been shafted by the cagey mahendo'sat, who have gone behind hani backs to deal with the humans and leave the hani outside of the loop.
Chanur is struggling to make ends meet, and she has even fallen out of favor with her fellow hani for violating established tradition and allowing her disgraced husband to join her crew, making him the first male hani ever to leave the surface of the hani homeworld. Male hani are hopelessly unstable emotional powder kegs, you see, a little role-reversal of demeaning stereotypes traditionally applied to female characters.
Chanur — after years of persona non grata status — is suddenly allowed access once again to Meetpoint Station, where all her problems began. There she meets up with Goldtooth, the shifty mahendo'sat trader who may or may not be an ally, who promptly produces the human Tully. Goldtooth is the one who managed to arrange clearance for Chanur onto Meetpoint, and did so expressly for the purpose of dumping Tully into her lap for another new round of crises. And of course, crises develop, with the kif going berserk and one of their number, Sikkukkut, making dubious gestures of allegiance. Worst of all, it's possible even the ineffable knnn are getting riled up.
After much chaos, Chanur gets Tully to explain what he's doing there, and it's the worst scene in the novel. Tully still has problems communicating, and I can understand — from a logical standpoint — why Cherryh would need to depict that consistently, just as I understand her method of representing Tully's limited language skills with broken sentences. But it still leaves the novel with the crippling problem that its most pivotal scene — the one upon which the reader's comprehension of the story's entire chain of events hangs — is conveyed in dialogue that sounds like a Texan asking an Uzbekistani for complex directions with only a pocket phrasebook between them. Remember, Tully has already served on Chanur's crew once, so his speech shouldn't be this incoherent: "Human. Kif. Mahe. Not good go so — kif. Three human ship. Gone. Not see. Not come home. Try go stsho. Mahe come-go." Thanks. That clears everything up nicely.
In fact, much of this novel's most important plot points are conveyed not in clear narrative, but in dialogue exchanges between myriad alien species yakking in broken pidgin English. In the end I found it was most helpful for me to skip ahead to the next book and check out its synopsis of Venture in order to clear up hazy plot points buried under Cherryh's tortuous writing. Call me old fashioned, but I consider that a problem.
As in Pride, Venture picks up the pace towards the end and features a couple of propulsive action scenes to bring everything to a thrilling climax. But in this novel's case, it's just too little too late. And it's frustrating as all git-out, because I can tell that there is, potentially, one hell of a cool story lurking within these pages. Yes, I'm willing to concede that my dislike of Cherryh's writing might be simply a matter of taste, but I do think the problems I have with her writing go deeper than style. Cherryh, like many of her aliens, just doesn't communicate clearly to her listener. Or maybe I just need a better translator.
Followed by The Kif Strike Back.