Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh
Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992)
Review by Ian Sales
Six years after the end of her Chanur quartet, Cherryh returned to Compact Space to add a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, this time focusing on Hilfy Chanur, niece of the preceding books’ protagonist, Pyanfar Chanur. The novel’s title refers to both the ship Hilfy captains and the new Compact resulting from Pyanfar’s actions in the previous books. Pyanfar has been made president of the Compact, the elected ruler of the four oxygen races – hani, kif, mahendo’sat and stsho – and, one can only assume, the three methane races – tc’a, chi and knnn. Hilfy is head of the Chanur clan, but she’s not interested in clan administration and so has been given a new ship with which to trade. Chanur’s Legacy opens at Meetpoint Station, in much the same fashion as the first book of the series, The Pride of Chanur.
Hilfy has spent the years between the end of Chanur’s Homecoming and the start of Chanur’s Legacy learning about the other races of the Compact, including their languages. Because of this, and her connection to Pyanfar Chanur, she is offered a contract by the stsho administrator of Meetpoint Station, No’shto-shti-stlen, to deliver a small package to Urtur, a station just over the border in mahendo’sat space. The fee offered is enormous, enough to pay off the ship. The only stipulation is the package – an antique ceremonial vase called an oji – must be hand-delivered to a specific person, Atli-lyen-tlas, the stsho ambassador at Urtur. Oh, and there’s also a young hani male currently languishing in a jail cell after attacking a kif, and his ship has left without him, so will Hilfy take him off the Meetpoint administration’s hands?
And there you have it: the plot has been kicked off. Hilfy and her crew travel to Urtur, but Atli-lyen-tlas has fled after an attack on the stsho embassy, and is now at Kshshti. Except no, the stsho has now fled to Kefk, in kif space. Meanwhile, there’s a mahendo’sat following Chanur’s Legacy, demanding to know what the oji is and insisting on helping Hilfy navigate what appears to be a complex plot brewing between the mahendo’sat, stsho and kif. And the kif are in there too, as they always are. There’s a kif hakkikt (leader) called Vikktakkht, who also wants to help Hilfy. And that hani male, Hallan Meras, is complicating things aboard Chanur’s Legacy, through a combination of inexperience, clumsiness and, well, being male. Not to mention the stsho passenger into whose care the oji has been entrusted for the journey…
If the previous books were about the kif, and Cherryh used the plot to slowly and carefully reveal their nature, then Chanur’s Legacy is about the stsho. It’s assumed the reader already understands the psychologies of the hani, kif and mahendo’sat. Especially the latter, as it’s an ambitious mahendo’sat Personage who is behind all the events in the book. Hilfy must figure all this out herself – she cannot call on her aunt, Pyanfar – and this despite the fact hardly anyone thinks she is either experienced or clever enough to successfully sort it all out. But, of course, she does.
Those who have read the other Chanur novels should know what to expect in Chanur’s Legacy. The story is told mostly from Hilfy’s point of view, but often breaks to Hallan’s. There’s very little exposition and, interestingly, Cherryh uses the dreamlike state entered by the hani during hyperspace travel to comment on the plot, During these sections, Hilfy has imaginary conversations with Pyanfar, whose gnomic advice helps Hilfy figure out what is really going on. The prose is characteristically brusque, but it also feels a little clearer than in the other books. Cherryh hides the underlying plot for much of the novel’s length, but then drops in sufficient scattered clues to provide a foundation for the final revelations. Chanur’s Legacy is, in many respects, the exemplar of the series to which it belongs. True, the humans are not even mentioned, and the methane-breathers make only one or two brief appearances; but the plot of Chanur’s Legacy shines a light on the politics of one of the oxygen-breather races, which in turn illuminates that of the other races – much as the other four books did. Its protagonist is a clever and independent-minded hani captain, who must navigate these very different cultures and work out what is actually going on.
If Chanur’s Legacy has a fault, it’s that by compressing the plot into a single novel, it seems, perversely, a lighter read than the other books. However, it does have the advantage of more or less standing alone, and can be read without reference to the previous four books (although, obviously, knowledge of them will help). It’s a solid “realistic” space opera set among entirely alien races, and it’s a shame Cherryh never revisited Compact Space as it’s one of the more interesting parts of her universe.