Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh

chanurslegacyChanur’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.

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Chanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh

chanurshomecomingChanur’s Homecoming, CJ Cherryh (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

And so the four books of the Compact Space series comes to a violent and confrontational end – although a fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, appeared six years later. But the jacket flap of Chanur’s Homecoming describes the book as the last of the series, and the story arc was begun in the second book, Chanur’s Venture, which in turn was catapulted from the first (and, I suspect, initially written as a standalone) book, The Pride of Chanur.

Humans have returned to Compact Space, this time in force. And it seems they have may have shot at a knnn ship, the knnn who are the most technologically advanced, the most alien and the most enigmatic. But there is also a battle for supremacy going on between two kif hakkikt, the mahendo’sat have been playing a long game in order to keep their own borders safe, and the ground-based hani are trying to arrest Pyanfar Chanur for various crimes she is alleged to have committed. In the preceding book, The Kif Strike Back, Pyanfar found herself allied with one of the rival hakkikt, Sikkukkut – or rather, a vassal of him – and part of the force which attacked and seized Kefk Station. But Sikkukkut’s enemy, Akkhtimakt, holds Meetpoint Station, which is where the humans may be heading for – or so Pyanfar’s mahendo’sat friend, Jik, believes.

Pyanfar leads another force on an assault on Meetpoint Station, even though she knows victory will force Akkhtimakt toward hani space. But she has no choice, as Sikkukkut has threatened the hani homeworld, Anuurn, if she double-crosses him. And after Pyanfar’s ship successfully take Meetpoint, they have to leave immediately to chase down Akkhtimakt before he reaches Anuurn… and get there before Sikkukkut does. The journey, a series of hyperspace jumps with little time to recover in between is hard on the crew – although, fortunately, they have another hani ship’s crew acting as relief (as that crew’s ship was too slow for Pyanfar’s taskforce).

The closer she gets to Anuurn, the more Pyanfar realises what has been going on. She learns more about the kif – partly from the kif “slave”, Skkukuk, given to her by Sikkukut, and partly by observation and inferences. She also figures out what the mahendo’sat have really been up to. And when it comes to the final battle for Anuurn and Gaohn Station (echoing the battle which ended The Pride of Chanur), Pyanfar manages to defeat Akkhtimakt and then turn on Sikkukut… and she ends the single representative of the hani to all the other races of the Compact.

The plot of Chanur’s Homecoming is predicated on the psychology of the alien races in the Compact. While told from the point of view of the hani, and so making them the most understandable, Pyanfar also has to be able to predict what the kif and mahendo’sat are planning, and so she must also understand how they think. And then there are the humans, who, despite the presence of Tully aboard The Pride of Chanur, are the real aliens in this series. Even for Cherryh, it’s a lot to get across, and her typically brusque prose frequently isn’t quite up to the job. It’s not just the details of the space battles, which work well, but the many scenes of Pyanfar trying to work out who is doing what and how each of the major players think do more to confuse than elucidate the plot. This is not to say that the details Cherryh reveals are not interesting – the kif, who are the main villains of the piece, actually turn out to be the most original of all the Compact races, for example.

All the information Cherryh throws in, the plots and counter-plots, the strategies and conspiracies, serve only to convince Pyanfar there is a single course of action open to her, and which she promptly takes when all the various parties are gathered together after the battle on Gaohn Station to sort everything out. There then follows a nakedly sentimental epilogue, which demonstrates how much the events of the four books have changed the hani.

The four Compact Space novels are good solid science fiction of a sort that doesn’t really seem to be written any more. While the fourth book is somewhat densely packed, and that sometimes gets in the way of its action-packed plot, it’s nonetheless cleverly done. Rereading Cherryh – or, in this case, reading one of her books for the first time – reminds why I was a fan of her fiction back in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps not everything she wrote then has survived the test of time, but the Compact Space novels appear to have weathered the decades pretty well. They’re not twenty-first science fiction by any means, but they’re still readable and enjoyable sf, and probably better than a lot of science fiction published today.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh

kifstrikebackThe Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

At the end of Chanur’s Venture, Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, The Pride of Chanur, had found themselves heading for Mkks, a station in the disputed zone between the kif and mahendo’sat, chasing after a kif leader who had kidnapped Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy and the human Tully. These events were precipitated by the return of humans to Compact Space, which in turn led to a bid for power between two kif leaders… And it’s one of these whom Pyanfar finds herself reluctantly allied to – the very same one, in fact, called Sikkukkut, who kidnapped Hilfy and Tully.

So The Pride of Chanur, Sikkukkut’s small fleet, the mahendo’sat hunter Jik, and even the hani ship Vigilance form an impromptu task force and descend on the kif station Kekf and seize control of it, cutting off Sikkukkut’s rival and causing him to badly lose face. (Kif politics operates on individuals’ clout, or sifk, and leaders can rise and fall in moments.) Somehow the enigmatic knnn are involved in all this, and the bird-like shsto have been making secret treaties with some of the hani in order to cut the mahendo’sat out of any future trade deals, and the House of Chanur back home is near-bankrupt and wanted for a number of violations of laws and treaties – which is why Vigilance is dogging The Pride of Chanur

The Kif Strike Back reads like the middle book of a trilogy, which in effect it is. The first book of the quintet, The Pride of Chanur, felt like a one-off, and the second book, Chanur’s Venture, took the ending of the first book and ran with it. The fifth book, Chanur’s Legacy, takes place many years later. And like many middle books of trilogies, The Kif Strike Back seems to consist chiefly of getting the various players into place for the final showdown, which, I’m guessing, will take place at Meetpoint, where the quintet opened. There is also a great deal of explaining, by Pyanfar, of what is going on behind the scenes and the motivations of the various factions – all, that is, except for the methane-breathers, as no one ever really knows what they’re thinking. To make matters worse, Tully confesses that the human ships may have actually fired on knnn ships. And no one messes with the knnn. They are centuries ahead of everyone else technologically, and don’t appear to deal very well with other races.

But if The Kif Strike Back isn’t quite as engaging a read as Chanur’s Venture, there is still much to like in it. Cherryh reveals more about the kif, and they’re a lot more interesting than they had appeared in the earlier books. Pyanfar makes an excellent protagonist, although perhaps she’s praised a tad too much by other characters (leading the reader to suspect the rest of the hani are not much good at anything). There is also a pleasingly slightly old-fashioned feel to the universe of the series. The pidgin spoken by the mahendo’sat is perhaps less pleasing, and it’s unlikely any writer would do such a thing in a twenty-first century novel. But the technology of Compact Space, with its huge space stations, FTL drives but no artificial gravity, the clunky tech of 1970s visions of the future… It’s all a bit retro. And there’s an implausible level of commonality in the technology across the various races – which also feels somewhat retro. While the various races’ spaceships may look different, they all seem to operate exactly the same – although it’s hard to tell how much so, given that Cherryh is characteristically parsimonious with detail. Her prose has always been about the characters and their actions and thoughts, and she rarely spends more than the minimum number of words on setting.

The Kif Strike Back is followed by Chanur’s Homecoming and Chanur’s Legacy. This series is solid hard-ish space opera, perhaps a little past its sell-by date – but when did that ever stop a science fiction reader? The Compact Space quintet doesn’t pretend to offer relevance to a twenty-first century reader; it didn’t to a reader back in the 1980s. And back then, I suspect, it felt a little like one of those wind-up toys from an earlier generation, a bit clunky, no smoothly rounded corners or brightly-coloured moulded plastic… but it did something interesting and fun. And sometimes that’s all you want from a book.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh

chanursventureChanur’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

 

The Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh

cherryh-pride_of_chanurThe Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Martin Wisse

The Pride of Chanur is a trade ship run by Hani – a race of bipedal intelligent lions – of the Chanur house/clan, captained by Pyanfar Chanur. She’s doing the rounds of her ship, currently docked at Meetpoint, the big interspecies trading station run by the stsho, when something speeds past her into the ship. At first thinking it some kind of animal escaped from another ship, it turns out to be sapient, but “naked-hided, blunth-toothed and blunt-fingered” unlike any species she knows, something that after careful questioning calls itself human and turns out to have escaped Kif custody, the Kif being a particularly nasty race of black robed, grey skinned, long snouted pirates and thiefs. She refuses to hand it – him – over to them and the result is she and her ship have to flee Meetpoint, one step ahead of the murderous Kif, who in the process blow up and murder another Hani ship…

If the descriptions of the alien races here sound vaguely familiar, it might be because you’re an old skool Master of Orion player and are reminded of the alien races there. Either through sheer coincidence or a bit of influence, that game ended up with a lot of similar races to the novel. The background is also reminiscent of MOO. Several intelligent species discovering interstellar travel at the roughly the same time, both oxygen and methane breathers over time have managed to reach a Compact, through which peaceful trade and other contacts are possible. They may not understand each other that well, but enough to trade or at least leave each other alone. It reminded me of the trading/diplomacy aspects of Master of Orion. Is it any wonder that rereading The Pride of Chanur also made me want to play MOO again?

But the other thing that reading The Pride of Chanur reminded me off was this song: ‘Stress’, by French electronic group Justice, and what you feel watching the clip. Because if there’s anything that makes Cherryh stand out as a science fiction writer is how much stress she puts on her characters, even in a relatively lighthearted story like this. From the start, even before the story proper begins, Pyanfar is under pressure, having her young niece Hilfy on board for her first voyage. Once the human, Tully, is on board and they are being chased from the Meetpoint system by the Kif things get worse.

Pyanfar has to deal with seemingly untrustworthy allies, Mahendo’sat, a kind of evolved squirrels, not to mention inscrutable methane breathers, the knnnn, blundering around as well as having political troubles back home, as a perhaps Kif influenced coup is undertaken against her uncle’s mastery of the Chanur clan. This combined with the sheer physical stress of jumping between star systems, especially with consecutive jumps and it’s understandable almost every physical description of Pyanfar has her haggard and tired, not to mention having her hair fall out in clumps…

It doesn’t always make for easy reading. The same goes for Cherryh’s writing style. She wants you to pay attention, doesn’t often repeat herself and drops little clues in when you least expect them. Terse is the right word for it. Reading any of her novels therefore takes some effort, much more so than, eg, a Lois McMaster Bujold. Which can be a bit of a problem when reading one on a warm tram at the end of a long working day…

The Pride of Chanur is the first book in a series, but stands alone. If you’re new to Cherryh, it’s a good introduction to her strengths and style; if you know her already you’ve already read this, right?

This review originally appeared on Martin’s Booklog.

The Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh

cherryh-pride_of_chanurThe Pride of Chanur, CJ Cherryh (1982)
Review by Ian Sales

Cherryh is no longer as popular as she once was. Her books have not been published in the UK for over a decade, and she does not even have a title in the SF Masterworks series – though  Downbelow Station (1981) and Cyteen (1988), both Hugo Award winners, are possible contenders. Reading The Pride of Chanur, which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 1983, and which is the first book in a five-book series, a possible reason for Cherryh’s fade from favour suggested itself.

The title of the book is the name of a spaceship, a trader operated by the Chanur family and captained by Pyanfar Chanur. She is hani, as are all the crew. The hani are leonine aliens, one of the four oxygen-breathing and three methane-breathing races which form the Compact. While docked at Meetpoint Station, a strange alien creature sneaks aboard The Pride of Chanur, and though its return is demanded by another alien race, the kif, Pyanfar refuses. The creature is not property but sapient. It also has plainly run away from mistreatment – perhaps even torture – by the kif.

The alien creature is, of course, a human. And it is the potential market suggested by the appearance of humans in Compact space which causes near-war between the hani and the kif. And in the middle of which stands Pyanfar Chanur. So it’s just as well that she manages to resolve it. In her favour, of course.

Like all Cherryh novels, the prose in The Pride of Chanur is brusque and effective. She makes no concessions towards her readers, and her novels are typically light on exposition. But everything the reader needs to know is in there and skillfully revealed. Pyanfar is a strong lead character, well-drawn and engaging. As are her crew. The hani are all female – the males stay at home, indolent and nominally in charge, while the females do all the work and actually run things. The world-building, however, is uncharacteristically sparse. Technologically, the races of the Compact appear to have FTL – some form of jump drive – but no artificial gravity, and communications and sensors are limited by the speed of light. Most of the action in the novel takes place in space stations, which very much resemble the one described in Downbelow Station. It is only in the final third of the story that it moves to the surface of Anuurn, the hani homeworld. And even then, Cherryh does her usual trick of filing the serial numbers off a human culture.

In fact, reading The Pride of Chanur it becomes apparent that everything in the book hovers on the edge of familiarity. The hani are lions, the kif are jackals, the mahendo’sat (another alien race) are apes, the shto… Well, the shto only make a handful of appearances in this first novel in the series so it’s a little difficult to make out their inspiration. Throughout the story, the oxygen-breathing aliens operate more like human cultures than they do real aliens. The mahendo’sat, for example, talk in a sort of pidgin English that would not be acceptable in a twenty-first century novel.

The methane-breathers, on the other hand, are more mysterious than they are alien. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of real communication or relationship between the two groups. Cherryh tells us they trade, and the knnn do prove useful in the final scenes of the book… But then The Pride of Chanur is the first in a series, so it’s possible the methane-breathers will become better integrated into the setting in later books.

All this is not to say that The Pride of Chanur is not a fun read. It’s pacey, has more than its share of thrills, and possesses a likable and sympathetic cast of protagonists. But it is a little hard to understand why it made the Hugo shortlist in 1983 – though, to be fair, the rest of the list that year was mostly poor (for example, Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge actually won the award). Cherryh’s novels are very much products of their time, and while they’re certainly well-crafted, their time has passed. Fans of her work – and I count myself one – will continue to treasure them, but their appeal is six parts nostalgia to four parts admiration.

I never did get around to reading the rest of the Chanur Saga. Having now reread The Pride of Chanur (decades after I last read it), I think I will make an effort to track down copies of the sequels – Chanur’s Venture (1984), The Kif Strike Back (1985), Chanur’s Homecoming (1986) and Chanur’s Legacy (1992). All five novels were also published in two omnibus volumes in 2000 and 2007.