Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984)
Review by Ian Sales
The first novel in the Compact Space quintet, The Pride of Chanur, was shortlisted for the Hugo Award but lost out to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge. Chanur’s Venture, the second book of the series, did not even make the shortlist. Which is a shame, as it’s a better book than the first. It’s not a sequel per se to The Pride of Chanur – which likely was written as a standalone – but the start of a new story which picks up from that opening novel. The same characters appear, and the same backplot drives the story, but the narrative continues through three books to a fresh resolution. It’s almost as if The Pride of Chanur were the prototype for the three books which follow it: Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back and Chanur’s Homecoming. A fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared some six years later and features the offspring of the previous books’ protagonist.
Compact Space is a small region of the galaxy populated by seven races, four oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing, which trade with each other. There are the leonine hani, the ape-like mahendo’sat, the rat-like kif and the avian shto on the oxygen side; and the wyrm-like tc’a, “yellow sticklike” chi, and the “black nests of hair-snarl with spider legs” knnn (I have to wonder if the knnn were a major inspiration for the Shadows in Babylon 5). In The Pride of Chanur, a strange alien sneaked aboard Pyanfar Chanur’s merchant ship, after escaping from the kif. The alien proved to be a human being called Tully, the surviving member of a human expedition into Compact Space that had been ambushed by the kif. Various shenanigans ensued, Pyanfar Chanur managed to save the day, and Tully, and a future trading with humans seemed both likely and desirable.
Chanur’s Venture opens, as did the first book, on Meetpoint Station, a sort of interstellar Checkpoint Charlie for all seven races. The Pride of Chanur is docked, and Chanur herself is still under a cloud after the adventures of the first book. And then a mahendo’sat contact, Goldtooth, tells her that he has a “package” for her. It’s Tully, of course. Again. And the kif are after him. Again. It seems that after he returned to human space, his superiors put together a flotilla to start trading in Compact Space, but it too was ambushed – either by the kif or the knnn. But now the mahendo’sat are involved, and they’ve given Tully some documentation which shows kif and shto collusion in the whole affair. The Pride of Chanur must take Tully from Meetpoint Station to Maing Tol in mahendo’sat space, but she has kif on her tail… and at Kshshti, one of the stops en route, they attack and spirit away Tully…
If Cherryh’s prose is typically brusque and muscular, then in Chanur’s Venture it reaches Schwarzenegger proportions. The story is told entirely from Pyanfar’s perspective, but for one scene where her niece, Hilfy, is the point of view. So, of course, the prose does not explain anything which Pyanfar might reasonably know. Cherryh has never been one for exposition or editorialising, her USP has always been her ability to tell stories from firmly within her characters’ point of view. It means a lot of Chanur’s Venture must be taken on trust. When The Pride of Chanur suffers damage as a result of a fast transit through a dust-filled planetary system, there’s no explanation of how, or to what part of the ship, the dust did its damage. The same is true of the politics which drive the story. A handy glossary provides background on the seven races (the entry on the hani is, of course, the longest), and is especially useful as so many of the behind-the-scenes drivers for the narrative are predicated on the political systems in use by each of the races. There is, for example, a power struggle going on among the kif, and Tully is a pawn in this struggle. The mahendo’sat are governed by “Personages”, whose positions are precarious at best, and it transpires that some of Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friends are higher up in the race’s chain of command than she had suspected. The shto also make much more of an appearance. (In The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression they were tortoise-like, but in this book they’re clearly avian.)
After reading The Pride of Chanur, I had formed the impression it was middling Cherryh – an enjoyable enough novel, not one of her best and not one that had survived the test of time unscathed. But I found I enjoyed Chanur’s Venture a whole lot more. Yet it’s little different to that first book – indeed, it pretty much recapitulates the earlier book’s plot, only in a more complicated form. It’s a pacey science fiction novel, set in an invented universe in which humans are the real aliens but in which everything hovers on the edge of familiarity. And yet… Pyanfar is a very sympathetic protagonist, and the narrative is equal parts the consequence of her actions and her being pushed here and there by events. The universe itself hangs together, the various races – especially given the glossary – are much more interesting than they initially seemed, and the story throughout hints at greater jeopardy and greater rewards. I still think you need to read The Pride of Chanur first, but the series definitely improves. Now I just need to get hold of a copy of The Kif Strike Back…