The Faded Sun Trilogy: Kesrith, Shon’jir and Kutath, CJ Cherryh (1978 – 1979)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs
In the ’70s, Donald Wollheim left Ace Books to create a new imprint, DAW, devoted to the fantasy and science fiction genres. In his search for new authors, Wollheim contracted a number of good newcomers, of whom the most important was CJ Cherryh. She hit the scene with a number of impressive award-winners, many of which share the unified Alliance-Union universe as a backdrop. Such as this one, The Faded Sun Trilogy; first a serial in Galaxy (‘The Faded Sun: Kesrith’), then three books, now published as one volume.
Note that there are a number of spoilers in this review for the second two books, if only in that they reveal the cliffhangers or developments of the previous books. I did try not to reveal anything that wasn’t included in the books’ cover blurbs.
The Faded Sun books take place just after a forty-year interstellar war between the Terrans and the stunted alien Regul; since the Regul used another alien species, the mercenary Mri, to comprise their standing army, it was dubbed the Mri Wars. Humanity has been battered and embittered by conflict with the brutal Mri; after several planets were wiped out by Mri forces, the humans learned their enemies’ weaknesses. The Mri have a strict caste and honor-based systems steeped in ancient culture and tradition, which rendered them unable – sluggish, at best – to cope with changes in human tactics, such as preferring firearms and planetary bombardment to traditional, honorable solo combat.
Meanwhile, the mercantile Regul have an even different type of caste system, where elders of the race are valued far more than younglings; they cannot understand how humans will allow younglings to lead, contradict orders set by elders, and so forth. Thus, three totally alien races; the Mri and Regul are just as intelligent as humans, but none of the three can truly understand the others’ thought processes.
So, after forty years of war and bloodshed, the humans have forced the mercantile empires of the Regul into an uneasy peace, having obliterated most of the Mri. The decimated Mri are told to stand down, and for the first time in their ancient memory, they have no employer and no master. Then again, there’s only around 400 of them, plus a handful at the last Mri enclave on Kesrith; their inability to adapt to Terran tactics has left them a dying but still much-feared race on the political chessboard.
The Faded Sun: Kesrith
The profitable planet Kesrith is a bounty world, turned over to the Terrans as part of the peace process; it’s home to the last Mri enclave in the galaxy. The Regul are hoping to minimize its profitability by stripping of it materials, unhappy that the humans have acquired it, but are unwilling to put up much of a fight for a blasted desert world; the Regul are in the process of dismantling everything of value when the Mri survivors arrive at Kesrith, days after the human ambassador/overseer and his assistant, Sten Duncan, arrives. Awkward.
The Mri enclave is where the young Niun and his sister Melein are still in training. Niun is the last young Mri of the warrior caste; Melein, the last in the priestly caste. Together, they are the last gasp of a dying race. And when the Regul destroy the ship harboring the other Mri survivors, they’re the only survivors. They form an uneasy alliance with Sten Duncan; Sten’s fearful and bitter at the Mri, having seen first-hand their fighting capabilities and remorseless carnage on the front-lines, and the Mri are understandably distrustful of the first human they’ve ever encountered. It’s an uneasy peace, but trust begins to grow, and Sten starts to feel less hostility towards the Mri and more towards the Regul who just massacred their former warriors.
The novel starts laying out the pieces that will dominate the trilogy, and wraps a multi-layered game of intrigue around the narrative: the uneasy relations and apprehension between Human, Regul, and Mri. There is some, but not a whole lot of action, but there is a bucketful of fascinating world-building, cultural analysis, and strong character development. It works as an introduction to the three disparate cultures, their immediate history, and the varying main characters. Kesrith is a strange and hostile environment, reminding me of Arrakis from its harsh deserts and deadly fauna. It’s not a planet humans are really meant to survive on; I get the feeling it was chosen based on Regul profit statistics, sight unseen.
The Faded Sun: Shon’Jir
Following the last book’s cliffhanger, the only way to save Niun and Melein was for Duncan to take them to the human occupation force, where they face an uncertain fate; sedated, they’re kept alive by medicine they’d otherwise deny. The human commanders have a plan that might thwart the Regul’s genocide of the Mri: found in the holy relics of the Mri is a navigation tape that may lead to the Mri homeworld. Centuries ago, the Mri engaged in what they considered a journey of discovery, which put them as the warrior-mercenaries employed by a long line of alien species, and this homeworld might harbor Mri who did not undertake the exploration quest. Putting Niun and Melein aboard a ship, with Duncan as navigator and doctor, they’re sent off to return home.
But things may not be as they appear to be, as one Regul battlecraft and two powerful human warships follow along behind. The amount of distrust is immense, given the history between these three races; the Regul attempt to assume what the humans would do, while the humans try to figure out what the Regul are up to, and Duncan is worried that the humans and Regul are convinced the Mri are a threat and have teamed up to finish off the few remaining Mri once and for all. And Melein decrees that no non-Mri can set foot on the Mri homeworld, so Duncan must learn the stern rules of the Mri warrior-caste.
All told, this one was a lot slower than the first one; more introspective and analytical, as we see Duncan learning the ways of the Mri, becoming accepted despite his many mistakes. The voyage to Kutath is long, so the entire book is more or less Duncan’s cultural indoctrination. The Mri, like the Regul, fascinate me because of how foreign they are: they are smart, clever, logical beings, yet operate in ways incompatible with human logic. They are bound by their strict tradition, hierarchy, and culture; they refuse to perform any kind of manual labor, since it erodes their warrior mentality. Yet Niun and Melein are still sympathetic, fascinating characters; in part because they straddle the line between the dying old ways and the concepts they’ll have to adapt, and use, to survive in a universe of Regul and Terrans.
The Faded Sun: Kutath
The plot reaches crisis point as the various threads begin to unravel. The Regul arrived at Kutath before the Terran warships, blew up Duncan’s ship and his long-distance message of peace, and begin a planetary bombardment before the Terrans can stopped them. Angered, the Mri tribes march against those who brought this attack—Niun, who’s helped Melein establish herself with the Mri tribe living near the planet’s ancient computer system. A computer system that’s tied to the planet’s self-defense system, and could take out the offending ships, unless Duncan convinces Melein that peace is a valid option.
Niun must keep the remnants of the Mri held together, despite their distrust of him, Melein, and most of all the foreign creature Duncan. Meanwhile, Duncan has to trek back across the ruined deserts from his meeting with the Terrans, in order to preserve the fragile peace between the three races that’s already eroding. Heck, he has to get back before the Mri themselves collapse from infighting, either from the allied Mri tribes, or someone else challenging Niun/Melein’s right to rule their newly-acquired tribe. The action begins to ramp up; a new Regul elder is born to lead, filling the gap of the previous leader, but he’s not acting in a coherent manner. Distrust between the humans and Regul comes to a breaking point after learning of the attempted Mri genocide, and the destruction of Duncan’s ship.
After the first book’s promises, and the second book’s slow, slow buildup, I was wondering how the third book would fare: a slow burn like the first one, more sluggish development, a flare out, or what. I shouldn’t have worried; it was the promised rewards of the plotlines established and developed through the last two books. Tensions flare, conflicts come to a head, and with the development of a new Regul leader, things start spinning out of control. The first two books are buildup for the crashing crescendos of the third book’s finale, where the great game sees its final moves. With so much distrust, and everyone on-edge, the novel shapes into a climactic three-way struggle; the intrigues start as a slow-burn, and then makes a rapid descent into conflict that can only end with the destruction of (at least) one faction.
Cherryh is a master of world-building, and the first novel is an excellent example of this: the textured world, the foreign species which are as smart as humans, yet unable to think like them. The second book is much slower, as Duncan is indoctrinated into the Mri culture. It’s something of a slog, but it opens up a lot of cultural nuances with the Mri while Duncan goes native. The third book brings it all home; the uneasy truce finally shatters, new developments throw everything into a spin, and a cat and mouse game of intrigue erupts into all-out war on the fringe of a galaxy, with an entire species’ future in the balance.
I do have a few complaints. There’s a number of fidgety little details that irked me: crossing the listless void of space to find the ancient Mri homeworld speaks the same language as their long-lost descendants, for example. And if you haven’t picked up on this by now, The Faded Sun Trilogy is slow. There’s a lot of build up, and a lot of wandering around, and a lot of cultural/anthropological discourse; not a whole lot of action or tension. The final book is loaded with powerful dramatic scenes, and there are some great tense moments scattered across the first and last volumes, but these are not thrill-a-minute reads. They’re more an exercise in world-building and alien cultures.
While the trilogy has its Hard SF and Military SF edges, the core is a Soft SF approach, more of a sociological and anthropological track than anything else, which can make it dry and monotonous. I didn’t find it as problematic as others might—I thought it was stunning to see the detailed alien races up close – but I wouldn’t mind if some more tension showed up earlier in the novel, and ended skipping some of the dryer sections in the second volume.
The Faded Sun Trilogy has everything: well-defined alien cultures that are actually alien, some intriguing philosophical questions, a Soft SF look at cultural integration and extinction, a fluid struggle of political intrigue, developed planetary ecology, and a proper epic backdrop of intergalactic war for this amazing space opera. Cherryh does all this with masterful vision and passionate intensity, a terse sense of focus that keeps the book short, yet nuanced and flowing. In a nutshell, it’s my ideal science fiction novel. While sluggish, it builds steam near the end for a fantastic conclusion that’s more than worth the price of admission. Every SF fan should give this series a try. I promise – at least I really hope – it won’t disappoint. Highly recommended; I found it a breathtaking, immersive read, and despite numerous flaws, I loved this series.
This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased.