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Tracker by CJ Cherryh

Published by DAW Books

Cover art by Todd Lockwood

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Foreigner series has become the mainstay of CJ Cherryh's ovure, to the point of eclipsing even the Alliance-Union Universe that originally made her career. It is the story of a lost human colony ship which stumbled upon a habitable world, the home of a species that looks superficially human-like but who form social connections in a manner fundamentally different from those of humans.

Over the course of fifteen books the storyline has gone from a series of discrete novels to a roman fleuve. This shift has permitted the development of a longer and more complex story because each volume no longer has to reach a definite conclusion. On the other hand, it has also meant that there have been times when it felt as if the author had lost track of the storyline and devolved into political soap opera.

In particular, it had seemed that she'd lost the storyline about the kyo, the other sapient species the spaceship Phoenix encountered while looking for a permanent home for the human colonists who had gone down to the Earth of the atevi. When Phoenix returned to the atevi home system, they found the Western Association in turmoil. The strains created by the rapid development of spaceflight had reached the breaking point, and the next several volumes have been devoted to Bren's efforts to move atevi society into a new stable mode that will benefit everyone.

However interesting these events might be in their own right, they went on so long that I became impatient to get back to the story of the kyo and their mysterious enemy who might also threaten humans and atevi. Even having Cajeiri, the atevi heir-apparent, as a second point-of-view character only went so far to quell the desire to get things moving more quickly.

This volume takes up where Peacemaker ended, and the first half or so continues the political soap opera. It's time for Cajeiri to say good-bye to the three young humans who came down from the station to help celebrate his fortunate ninth birthday and his Investiture as his father's heir. He's being watched closely, his every action and reaction studied: is he showing the proper attitudes and responses of an atevi lord, or is there evidence that his close association with humans has warped his character and personality in some unfortunate way?

Cajeiri is well aware of that scrutiny, of the need to comport himself in a manner that will convince the adults that he deserves further such visits. But at the same time he cannot deny that he regrets their departure, and even more troubling, that they regretted the necessary parting and were not entirely filled with joy at their return to their families.

And then Bren receives the coded message from Jase, his ally among the Council of Captains (in her fictional worlds Cherryh uses a system of four captains who take shifts, something that may be jarring to readers accustomed to the Navy tradition of there being only one captain aboard a ship and his authority being absolute). There is an unknown spaceship in-system.

It may be the kyo, but as of yet there is no definite identification. It could be their mysterious enemy, or yet another spacefaring species, previously unknown to all parties. So while they hope it is the kyo and they are willing to negotiate a treaty (or at least a modus vivendi), they must prepare for the possibility that the newcomers mean trouble.

As the evidence mounts that the newcomer is indeed the kyo, and its crew may well include the individual with whom they've negotiated previously, Bren has to consider the evidence that the human leadership in the heavens is as dangerously fractured as atevi leadership had been on their Earth. The commander of Reunion Station (the one that was evacuated as part of the tentative agreement with the kyo to remove human presence from their space) still regards himself as a commander, never mind that he no longer has anything to command. And Tillington, the Mospherian who is in charge of the human side of the station, is an empire-builder who considers it his obligation to keep alive the old quarrel between colonists and crew.

So even as Bren reassembles the team that established a working relationship with the kyo (and Cajeiri is looking at a happy reunion with his human associates far sooner than he dared hope), he also has to deal with some unpleasant human politics.

Politics that erupt in ugliness as the kyo draw closer and Tillington enacts certain security measures. The former residents of Reunion Station, who've been feeling like unwelcome stepchildren, riot. In a scene reminiscent of the riot in Downbelow Station, they run wild. Some breach the sector boundaries to reunite with families. Others hoard potable water in every available container, even loot the supply storerooms right down to the walls.

And then Irene, one of Cajeiri's human associates, arrives in the atevi sector. Dressed in the formal clothes she wore for the Festivity, she has the bearing of a young atevi lord, something that gives pause to even the professionals of the Assassins' Guild. And she brings a frightening account of treachery and those who would use children as hostages in a political game.

One of the most interesting moments comes when Bren refers to not wanting a machimi in the corridor. Machimi are atevi dramatic productions in which the complexity of shifting man'chi, semi-instinctual loyalty, are acted out. And thus his statement becomes not just an sf-nal version of "I don't want drama right now," but also an acknowledgment that complex networks of loyalties are being strained to their limits and will soon undergo a rupture and restructuring.

This volume ends in a way that clearly sets the stage for the next. Although major conflicts have been resolved, it is primarily to remove obstacles to the most major one, namely, the need to develop some form of working relationship with the kyo.

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Review posted October 15, 2016.