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Protector by C. J. Cherryh

Cover art by Todd Lockwood

Published by DAW Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This volume is the fourteenth installment in the Foreigner series, a roman fleuve about an alien species with a radically different way of making social connections and the humans who became stranded on their world. Bren Cameron, the protagonist, is the human paidhi or ambassador, originally the one and only human allowed to leave the island of Mospheria and move among the atevi on the mainland. However, in the course of the series radical changes have necessitated far closer cooperation between humans and atevi, and those strictures have been relaxed, although never altogether abolished.

Those changes have not come without a price in dangerous strains upon the society of the atevi, which has historically been so stable and slow-changing that the ancient castle that serves as the home of one of Bren's chief allies, the Dowager Ilisidi, was already old when Yuri Gagarin climbed aboard his Vostok spacecraft and became humanity's first spacefarer. While Bren was on an interstellar voyage to retrieve a lost human colony from a system disputed by a third species, the kyo, those strains reached the breaking point. Tabini, the aiji or leader of the Western Association, was forced to flee into exile while the usurper Murini took the Bu'javid, the ancient fortress that serves as their statehouse.

Tabini's been restored to his rightful position and the historic apartments and state chambers of the Bujavid have been restored after the damage they took in the fighting, so it would seem that Bren should finally be able to settle back down to something resembling business as usual in the offices of the paidhi, preparing for the arrival of the kyo at the earth of the atevi. But few things could be further from the truth. Although the rebellion has been ended and Bren has, with the help of the Dowager Ilisidi, been able to tie the East and the troublesome South even more firmly into the Western Association, there are still major fractures and stressors. Some of them are political, some of them are personal, but all of them deal with man'chi, that instinctual bond of loyalty that humans can never understand at a gut level and which can shift with blinding rapidity when circumstances change.

In addition, there is the young heir Cajeiri, who in the past several volumes has become a second point-of-view character, providing a unique window into the atevi mind. He's gained a great deal of maturity since we first met him as an impetuous young troublemaker who was constantly into mischief, and at least some of that maturity has come as a result of his great-grandmother's stern and very traditional tutelage. But he's still a youngster, barely on the cusp of his fortunate ninth birthday, and the shadow of his unspeakable eighth year still hangs over him. A year not just shadowed by the negative significance of eight (or any power of two) in atevi numerology, but also by the awful events that he's had to endure during it. And while he knows that he'll have to endure all sorts of formal birthday celebrations, he desperately wants a very personal birthday celebration with the young humans he ran with when he was aboard the human spaceship on the trip to Reunion Station.

It's not exactly a relationship the adults around him want to encourage. Far from it, they had tried to sever that bond in hopes that keeping him too busy with his new responsibilities will lead him to forget this awkward association and the specter of cultural contamination it raises. Nobody knows what will happen to an ateva who is exposed to human society during the mental flexibility of childhood. Even the human paidhi-candidates only begin to study the atevi language and culture in adulthood, after puberty has closed off that period of neurological plasticity. Might continuing close contact with humans and their social structures render Cajeiri incapable of making normal atevi social attachments?

Yet Cajeiri is determined. Has he not shown with his young associates of his bodyguard that he is able to make the normal attachments one expects of an ateva?

It would be simpler if he would just stay out of trouble. But resolve as he might to think things through, it has helped only marginally, thanks to his ability to rationalize anything he wants badly enough. And then there's Boji, his little pet parid'ja, an animal similar to a monkey. It's supposed to stay in its cage and be quiet and generally cause no trouble, but in practice things never work out so easily.

Not to mention the political situation, which remains difficult. His mother's father has been banished from Shejidan (the capital) for having caused a disturbance. He's not the most stable individual, and he came to the headship of his clan under most peculiar circumstances. As Damiri says, Ajuri swallows honor -- and her ties to it puts her in a most difficult position, needing to distance herself from her father and her natal clan, which can only happen if she makes a firm declaration for another clan to which she has ties. And if that weren't enough, there's mounting evidence of a fracture within the Assassins' Guild, the organization that provides bodyguards for important people and who carry out authorized coercive violence in atevi society.

When Bren gets word that the shuttle to deliver Cajeiri's young guests is arriving early, everything is thrown into turmoil. Given the uncertain security situation in Shejidan, there is no way they can be lodged in the Bujavid, not to mention that Cajeiri's apartments there are not nearly large enough for three guests, so where can they go?

And then Lord Tataseigi, one of the arch-conservatives among the conservative party, suggests that the young gentleman should come to the Atagini ancestral estate of Tirnamardi to celebrate that fortunate ninth birthday -- and that his human guests should accompany him. An idea that would've been utterly unthinkable only a few years earlier, and one can only wonder how much this change of heart is the result of the machinations of the Dowager Ilisidi, with whom he has a relationship of some degree of intimacy covered in a veil of atevi discretion and reticence.

So off Cajeiri heads with his great-grandmother to the spaceport, where the shuttle is to deliver the three young humans to the earth of the atevi. And not just them, but also an old friend of Bren's -- Jason Graham, who was originally trained to be the ship's paidhi to the atevi, but ended up becoming one of its four captains (an arrangement that still grates on me, thanks to having been brought up on the sf of Robert A. Heinlein, a US Navy veteran who drummed into his readers' minds that a ship can have only one captain). And of course someone of such elevated status must have a suitable company of bodyguards, which means two formidably armed and armored soldiers.

With everything wound so tight politically, the trip to Tirnamardi must be made under cover of some subterfuge to protect against the possibility of snipers or other assassins. But when they arrive, they can enjoy a country outing, spend time admiring the antiquities and the careful restoration of a historic manor house after the damage it took during Murini's uprising. Everything is an astonishment for the three young humans who've spent their entire lives in one or another artificial habitat, and who have never been on a planetary surface with a shirtsleeve environment. Not to mention an excursion riddled with perils, from issues of etiquette to biological differences that can make atevi foods deadly to humans.

But the children navigate their first formal dinner with aplomb, even eating the slippery pickled eggs that Cajeiri had to learn to like when they were first served to him. And they manage well enough on a ride, although they are given elderly mecheiti who are not going to challenge the herd-leader for dominance. Even when the mecheiti encounter a track and become aroused, the young guests do not panic, and they return quite happily to the manor house for a good soak before the evening activities.

And then there is trouble. It starts simply enough, with Boji getting loose in spite of all Cajeiri's precautions. As all four of the young people and Cajeiri's servants and bodyguard detail are trying to retrieve the creature, there is another alarm -- an intruder. The pursuit and the subsequent capture and interrogation of the rogue Assassin uncovers an entire Shadow Guild operation, and this volume ends with as many questions raised as have been resolved. Conspiracies that were thought to have been the fallout of Murini's failed coup turn out to have their roots in the events of the War of the Landing, two centuries earlier -- and quite possibly to have tendrils throughout atevi society and raise questions about the man'chi of individuals whose loyalty had been considered impeccable.

Presumably the next volume will tie off some of these issues, since it is the third of this trilogy. However, we can only wonder when we'll finally get back to the kyo and their mysterious enemies on the far side of their region of space. Although the atevi political soap opera is interesting, it's feeling more and more like a side-story that has grown out of control and is taking over the primary story. I just hope that in the next trilogy of Foreigner novels Ms. Cherryh can start moving the storyline back toward the arrival of the kyo and the transformation of the awkward alliance of two species into a more felicitous three.

Review posted January 17, 2015.

Buy Protector: Book Fourteen of Foreigner from Amazon.com

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