Betrayer by C. J. Cherryh
Cover art by Todd Lockwood
Published by DAW Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In Deceiver Bren Cameron had to deal with the kidnapping of his former girlfriend by an atevi faction operating out of the Marid, a southern area held by several interrelated clans with only tenuous ties to the Western Association, the largest and most significant not-nation of the atevi. He had successfully penetrated that land and made contact with its young aiji (leader), a dynamic ateva who was clearly neither indolent nor crazy (by atevi standards, which of course differ from human ones due to differences in neurological hardwiring related to social connections). By the end of the novel, it appeared that Bren had worked out a tentative peace and would soon be heading back to the Bujavid (the statehouse) in Shejidan (the capital) with the matter properly resolved.
As this novel begins, we discover that the sense of completion was in fact largely illusory. Things aren't going nearly so well as we thought. Instead of being on his way back to the capital, Bren's still in the Marid, supposedly a guest of Lord Machigi, yet effectively more of a prisoner. Although Bren has not been brutalized or openly restrained, he is certainly not free to come and go, and is increasingly wondering whether some treachery is afoot.
And that's no mere paranoia, as it would be among humans. Atevi have a long history of resolving political disputes by luring a rival leader into one's grasp and then eliminating him or her. Bereft of their leader, the subordinates will subsequently attach themselves to a new leader, and if all goes as planned, it will be the very person who assassinated their former leader. This works because the atevi form social connections in a very different way. Instead of the ever-shifting network of Machiavellian alliances which characterizes both humans and chimpanzees, atevi have a social structure that more closely resembles many of the herd-dwelling hooved mammals. That is, they instinctively bond to a herd-alpha to whom they all look, but who looks to no one.
Finally Lord Machigi invites Bren to dine with him, and they are able to subsequently talk business. Even with the communications with Najida (Bren's estate, on the coast facing Mospheria, the island to which the humans are confined to maintain the peace between two species so different psychologically) still tenuous, Bren is able to relay the offers of the aiji-dowager Ilisidi, grandmother to Tabini-aiji. She wants the Marid firmly integrated into the Western Association, and at the same time she wants an arrangement that will reduce the relative poverty of her native and very traditional east. It's not abject poverty -- nobody's starving -- but in comparison to the wealth enjoyed by the Ragi and other western clans, the easterners often feel like poor relations in spite of the vast wealth of natural resources in their lands. Much of the problem lies in the lack of inexpensive transportation to facilitate trade -- although the eastern clans have always fished extensively, they have no cargo ships and thus no way to bypass the mountains that divide them from the west. The Marid have suitable ships in abundance, and if they can just be convinced to stop their endless machinations to gain control of the coastal lands held by the Edi and related tribal peoples, they can establish trade with the east to the benefit of everyone throughout the Western Association.
After careful consideration, Lord Machigi agrees that it's a good idea -- but he wants Bren to function as the mediator in creating this deal. Suddenly Bren is being pushed into a role that he knows almost entirely from historical sources, and which involves social-connection responses that his brain simply isn't hardwired to have, so he must simulate them at an intellectual level. He will literally be switching attachments, becoming Lord Machigi's representative instead of Tabini-aiji's, in order to present Lord Machigi's counteroffer. It is a task fraught with perils for a human, even one who has perhaps the best grasp on the ins and outs of atevi society of any paidhi-interpreter in the entire history of human-atevi interactions.
Meanwhile, Tabini's young heir Caijiri is still back at beseiged Najida with his great-grandmother, trying to sort out his situation -- both that of his own personal associates and that of his position in the adult world at large. He'd almost been glad to see those two bodyguards his father foisted on him, Lucasi and Veijico, get swept up in the kidnapping of Bren's former girlfrend Barb. Although those two were supposed to be trained Guild, they had been cocky and had managed to alienate both the dowager's Guild and the staff of Najida, actions Caijiri regards as proof positive that they're not nearly as clever as they seem to be. However, Veijico is now being sent back as security for Barb, who has been released from Lord Machigi's custody as a gesture of goodwill to defuse the tension that brought him very close to being declared outlaw.
Vejico will almost certainly want to return to Caijiri's staff, even as she's still worrying about the whereabouts and safety of her brother Lucasi. This is a situation Caijiri most adamantly Does Not Want, unless it is clear that she has learned her lesson and is willing to treat him and the staff respectfully. However, he is also very aware of the limits of his authority, and is not sure how exactly he will enforce these requirements if Veijico should balk, or worse, present surface obedience just long enough to get inside their guard and promptly go back to her old bad habits.
Worse, Nadija's safety is extremely marginal at best. The troublemakers from the Marid are still in the area and still perfectly willing to make further trouble. They have already taken actions that transgress the rules of inter-clan conflicts, planting bombs in common roads and injuring local children who had no part in the fight. There is very real discussion of declaring them outlaw and bringing down the wrath of the entire Guild upon them, although this could end up creating as many problems as it resolves. Taibini-aiji has sent some of his own Guild to reinforce the defenses of his grandmother and his son, but they are stuck at the airport, unable to fight their way out of an encirclement and get to Najida.
It is through this confusion of contesting groups that Bren must travel in order to bear Lord Machigi's message to the dowager and move the negotiations one step forward. To be sure, he has some exceedingly competent staff who have shown their ability to protect him many times over in the past. However, when he's dealing with enemies who regard themselves as having nothing to lose, getting him safely through is apt to be that much harder.
This is a work about which I feel intensely ambivalent. On one hand, it's fascinating to see Bren delving ever deeper into the intricacies of atevi culture and history, not merely as abstract disciplines but as skills he's got to navigate and master in order to avert a disastrous conflict and bring about a stable situation (or at least as stable as is possible given atevi psychology). On the other, I'm becoming frustrated that the resolution to this particular story arc just keeps receding into the distance. I thought that the kyo were supposed to be coming soon and we'd get down to real negotiations with their actual leaders. Instead we've got a never-ending soap opera of squabbling atevi clans -- this volume doesn't even have a proper ending, but is clearly the set-up to yet another volume (if not another whole trilogy) of all this maneuvering. It makes me wonder if the author has lost her way and has no idea how to deal with the return of the kyo, and is instead desperately stalling for time in hopes her subconscious finally brings something up.
I'm really hoping that the next volume will prove me wrong and we'll get to see some forward motion on the space side of the storyline, and particularly the reappearance of the kyo. The hints of their psychology are really fascinating, and I'd like to see it explored in depth.
Review posted June 7, 2011.
Buy Betrayer: Foreigner #12 from Amazon.com