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Peacemaker by CJ Cherryh

Cover art by Todd Lockwood

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Peacemaker is the fifteenth volume of Cherryh's long-running Foreigner series. Over the past two decades and change she has gone from a series of discrete novels to a roman fleuve and taken protagonist Bren Cameron from a very awkward beginning as a rookie thrust head-first into an alien culture he knows only from books. In the course of his labors he's become a seasoned veteran carrying out sophisticated and delicate negotiations within that alien culture, working to further not just humanity's interests, but those of the greater partnership of two dissimilar species.

The atevi are superficially humanoid, their most distinctive physical differences their greater height (a human is the size of one of their nine-year-old children) and their gunmetal-black skin. But those similarities are deceptive, and nearly led the stranded human would-be colonists to their destruction on the vast gulf between their social structures.

Atevi don't form social connections like humans. They have no conception of love or friendship, instead basing their associations on man'chi, the bond of loyalty to a herd-alpha. This system of connections, more similar to those found in many of the hoofed mammals, forms a very different society than human ones based upon primate systems of ever-shifting Machiavellian alliances for temporary advantage.

But they were similar enough that the first humans to land on the Earth of the atevi could think they were developing a working relationship of mutual benefit. They had no idea that they were forming connections between groups that normally stayed apart, creating intolerable strains in the social fabric of a culture that had just made a major leap in working together to create a railroad network that spanned what had previously been a system of feuding clans and tribes.

As those strains reached the breaking point, they ruptured in a sudden outburst of violence known as the War of the Landing. Humans were exiled to the island of Mospheria, to henceforth follow their dangerous alien customs away from atevi society and to deal with atevi only through a single ambassador, the paidhi. It created sufficient stability that humans and atevi were able to create a modus vivendi that lasted for generations, long enough for the humans of Mospheria to develop a culture very different from that of the descendants of the crew of the spaceship that originally brought them to this system.

But the fractures and strains have remained, exacerbated by the return of the Phoenix with news of another alien species, one that had enemies of its own on the far side of the volume of space in which it operates. The atevi have risen to the occasion and learned to operate new technology, including their half of the reactivated space station in orbit over their world. It's a remarkable achievement for a species and society that proceeds slowly, working out all the numbers before implementing a technological advance, who treasure tradition so greatly that many of their great noble families' country seats are not just centuries, but millennia old (for instance Malguri, ancestral castle of the aiji-dowager Ilisidi, was already old when Yuri Gagarin climbed aboard his Vostok spacecraft and orbited the human Earth).

Ever since Bren and the dowager Ilisidi returned from the two-year-long mission to the distant star where Phoenix had established a second station and run afoul of the alien kyo, they have been dealing with one after another overstrained atevi social connection. Meanwhile, the young heir Cajeiri has returned changed by his exposure to human children his own age, and has struggled to resist efforts to get him to forget those awkward associations. Far from it, he's gone behind the backs of adult authority to maintain those connections, to the point of inviting his young associates to join him on the surface for the celebration of his fortunate ninth birthday.

It's been an eventful trip, since several of those strains have erupted into violence all around him and his little circle. In the previous volume, Protector, they retreated to the Ategeini family seat of Tirnamardi in the hope that such a remote location would be safer than the capital -- only to have their enemies come to them. As this volume begins, our heroes are preparing to return at last to Shejidan and the formal Festivity for Cajeiri's milestone birthday. Cajeiri is determined that nothing should mar this important milestone, in which he will be formally Invested as his father's heir, the future aiji of the Western Association, which has grown to effectively become the government of all the atevi.

However, try as he might to make sure that everything is in order, that no oversight on his part or that of his associates will escalate into an embarrassing Incident, Cajeiri is in the midst of a society in upheaval. And many of the fracture lines involve the role of the Assassins' Guild in the recent failed coup which briefly unseated his father from the aijinate. Much like the fracture lines in the crust of a tectonically active planet, these social fractures have their origins in events that went back far into history -- in this case, to the unification of the forward-looking Western Association and the deeply traditional east. Although the Assassins' guild of west and east nominally became a single organization, the two groups continued to operate in very different ways and with very different aims.

For the last several decades, the person in charge of assignments has been following an agenda of his own. He is a man with the temperament of an aiji -- but because he joined the Assassins' Guild, he is forever barred from seeking or obtaining overt political power (the atevi version of separation of powers and checks and balances). Frustrated, he turned to using the office he did possess to become a power behind the scenes, like a spider in a web. But now his manipulations have been found out, and he has no intention of going quietly.

Hoping to minimize the damage that will follow any effort to forcibly remove the master of assignments from the Guild, Bren has hatched a daring plan to enter the Guild's Council Hall and confront him. It's a long shot, even with the authority of Tabini-aiji's own personal signet ring on his finger -- but the alternative may well involve the complete collapse of civil society if the Western Association were to fall apart as the result of loss of trust in the reliability and impartiality of the Assassins' Guild.

Yes, there's fighting, but it's probably less intense and less ugly than a comparable confrontation among humans, thanks to the nature of atevi social dynamics. And unlike humans, atevi don't seem to hold grudges. When someone is defeated and removed from the picture, the networks of man'chi shift and realign into a new normal, and everyone accepts it. Long-term feuds are almost always the result of ongoing disputes about a resource, rather than a true grudge about a past wrong.

And then it's time for Cajeiri's formal Investiture which will seal him as heir to the aijinate of the Western Association. It means a formal dinner with lots of courses, during which he will have to make conversation with a large number of very stuffy older people while his young associates from the starship will have to stay on the margins and look like very proper ornaments to the court. And then will come the actual ceremony, in which he will have to make a speech.

And not just any speech. Now that he's nine, and on the threshold of adulthood as atevi reckon such things, he will be making a formal speech in the adult language, in which numbers are of critical importance. As a result, it has been carefully vetted by the masters of kabiu, a discipline that combines elements of numerology and feng shui, along with dietary rules and etiquette. Although he's given it in time to memorize it, the sheer press of activity means that his attention to it is rather cursory. After all, he'll have time to refresh his memory right before the ceremony.

Except that family politics leads to a sudden last-minute change in the formal coat he will wear, and the paper with the text of the speech remains in the other coat, in his quarters. Any other time it would be easy enough to send one of his bodyguards up to retrieve it, but all the troubles have meant increased security measures, and they can't make connections with any of his servants to complete the hand-off. As the situation becomes more critical, Cajeiri's anxiety about the situation leads to him forgetting even the parts he thought were solid -- and there's no more time to hesitate.

And thus we get a splendid display of resourcefulness in a very young man. To be sure, excellent training in both the traditional and the new does go a long way in bringing about a positive outcome, although I hesitate to say a happy ending, for the simple reason that the end of this volume is still a waypoint in what promises to be a very long story. The mysterious kyo are still on their way to establish diplomatic relations with humans and atevi, and there's also the matter of the mysterious enemy or enemies on the far side of kyo space.

One of the most interesting things about this volume is the inclusion of two texts from within the world, presented directly as feigned documents with no narrative mediation. The first is a report on the rules about assassination, prepared by Wilson, Bren's predecessor as paidhi, and is presented as a prolog to the novel. The second, presented at the end as an appendix, is a history of the arrival of humans to the Earth of the atevi written by Lord Geigi, and annotated from a human perspective by Bren. The first one gives us some essential information that we'll need later in the novel, but the second is particularly interesting because it lets us see the key events of this world's history from an atevi perspective rather than the human one that has been presupposed in the earlier books which were almost entirely from Bren's point of view. Thus we see that what appeared to be treachery was in fact the collision of two very different biologically driven systems of interacting with others.

I'll be interested in seeing where the next set of three volumes takes the ongoing stories. The second is to be titled Visitor, which makes me hopeful that the kyo are finally arriving at the Earth of the atevi and that tread, left dangling ever since the Phoenix left Reunion Station, will finally be picked back up and developed.

Review posted October 9, 2015.

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