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Deceiver by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Todd Lockwood

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Politics among the atevi are still unsteady after the usurper Murini tried to unseat the aiji (leader) Tabini. Although Murini failed and was ultimately killed, his supporters had extended subtle tentacles of influence all over the western coast of the major continent of the atevi earth.

Bren Cameron, the human paidhi (interpreter) whom Tabini made one of his important lords, has just foiled one such plot in the estate neighboring his own. The young Lord Baiji was supposed to have wed a daughter of one of the troublesome southern clans, a marriage that would've lasted only long enough for him to sire an heir, at which point he would have died an untimely death and his widow's family would have moved in to help her administer the estate until the child's majority. But Bren's visit to thank him for help in rescuing Cajeiri, Tabini's heir, forced their hand and the situation erupted into violence.

Now Bren needs to sort things out, and he's not entirely sure that the assistance of the formidable aiji-dowager Ilisidi is as welcome as he needs to make her feel it is. A staunch traditionalist from the mountainous east, she has a strength of will belied by her small stature and slender frame.

Meanwhile, Cajeiri is having troubles of his own. After his repeated narrow escapes, his father has decided he needs more experienced bodyguards than the two young associates he picked up during the usurpation. Although they are training with the Assassins' Guild, they've got a lot left to learn, which means their ability to deal with crises is severely limited, and they don't feel confident enough to dissuade Cajeiri from his more dangerous bright ideas.

So Tabini assigns a pair of young but fully-trained Assassins' Guild bodyguards to his son. However, they are also cocky about their own abilities and take some considerable pride in breaking the rules, claiming it's intended to keep their skills sharp. Worse, they clearly don't respect Cajeiri's leadership, and their frequent head-butting is wearing on his nerves. Thus he decides to give them the slip, not anything dangerous, just enough to make them a little more cautious about their assessments of situations.

However, when he disappears from their sight and can't be found, his reputation leads them to assume the worst. Not realizing that Cajeiri is in fact hiding within the mansion and fully intends to reveal himself just as soon as they've learned their lesson, they launch a full-scale search of the grounds. In the confusion, Bren's human houseguest Barb, his former girlfriend who's now attached herself to his brother Toby, goes outside and becomes lost.

Now they've got an even bigger problem -- Barb has only the most rudimentary knowledge of the atevi language, and she's shown notable disrespect to atevi customs in the past, which does not bode well for her ability to navigate an encounter with local villagers. Especially if they should be relatives of the girl whose ninth-year ensemble (a special dress and jacket custom-made for a coming-of-age celebration) Barb coveted and tried to buy -- there's bad blood there, and atevi are not patient with willful disregard of custom and proper behavior.

Worse, it's becoming evident that the mess with the neighboring estate of Kajiminda is much larger than it originally appears. The subversion of the indolent and mentally disturbed Lord Baiji was in fact the spearhead of a much larger scheme for advancement on the part of the southern clans that surround the Marid, the southlands, and particularly Machigi, the clan that supported the recent usurpation. Aware that their original scheme has been defeated by the fortuitous accident of Bren and Cajeiri's visit to express their gratitude for aid in a rescue, they are laying fresh plans.

Treachery is an integral part of atevi social dynamics. Although it is often expressed through the strategic assassination of a key individual in order to reorganize man'chi, the instinctual herd-alpha-loyalty that is the primary driver of atevi psychology, it can also take the form of a kidnapping of a subordinate particularly valuable to a leader on whom pressure is to be applied. If Barb has been kidnapped by the Machigi or their various allies, she could be in even worse danger -- while the Machigi would not deliberately poison her and thus destroy her value to them, they are not familiar enough with human biology to know what foods are safe for a human to eat. Many atevi foods include alkaloids that, while pleasant stimulants to the atevi metabolism, are deadly poisons to humans. Worse, Barb has very little idea how to recognize safe and dangerous foods in atevi cuisine, so she'll be hard-pressed to protect herself.

So Bren and his atevi allies head southward into the Marid for a confrontation with the Machigi in hopes of rescuing Barb without having to make too many concessions that will place the aiji (leader) Tabini into an awkward position. But they may also have treachery in their own midst, as the man'chi of Cajeiri's problematic bodyguards becomes increasingly suspect. Although the Assassins' Guild had vouched for them, it turns out that their training was performed in a rather haphazard fashion amidst the chaos of the usurpation, which means that they may have unsuspected loyalties that are interfering with their ability to properly attach to their Principal as Guild bodyguards should.

Getting to see another group of atevi cultures, and how cultural difference interlocks with biological drivers of behavior that are common to all atevi, is very interesting. As always, Cherryh keeps us aware that, even someone so engaging as Cajeiri, through whose eyes we see much of the story, is not a human being and as such does not share many of the patterns of thought that we take for granted.

Review posted April 30, 2011.

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