I am on a serious CJ Cherryh binge right now. I think after I started reading The Wind-Up Girl (still only halfway) and got so bored by its character clichés that I figured I need to turn to something better, and since I’ve never actually delved too deep into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe save for the two Hugo winners, I might as well start at the beginning.
I’ve decided to start Union-side because there’re only 4 books (and a short novella) in the series, plus I want to re-read Cyteen again. I first went to Wikipedia because, for crying out loud the background is so ridiculous that you definitely need the Cliffnotes before you start (to be fair, there’re 27 books total in this series so I get how it became this way). Serpent’s Reach is the first one. It follows a woman whose clan got wiped out in a political move and basically is a long-con revenge story with some star-system shattering endings.
Let’s get the bad parts of this book out first: mainly the pacing. There were several time skips and I thought they were abrupt and frankly, either need to be expanded or completely removed. Right now they’re in that awkward place where you have enough details to want more but don’t get any. Like the years the protagonist spent between her exile from a planet and arrival on a ship. There’s a whole chapter devoted to her physically aging. Like, what? You couldn’t just go ‘she was 16, now she’s 29, here’s a summary paragraph about what she did during that time, done?’ And the plot would work out pretty much exactly the same, so this definitely came across to me as really unnecessary.
I also found some of her plot elements intentionally too vague. Overall the book feels like it’s been cut due to page constraints or something, because there were a lot of uneven detailing going on. I couldn’t figure out what happened at the end to the Kontrins until I looked up the plot on the Internet! I mean I got the sense that the planet blew up and everyone died (it didn’t), but not exactly what went down. An additional sentence or two would be more than enough to clear it up, instead of me just have a vague feeling of dread, which worked very well in Downbelow Station but not here. Guess that’s why that one won a Hugo and this one, not so much.
And now onto the good stuff – the great things that makes me such a devoted Cherryh fan – her characters and their relationships. (With a healthy dose of political intrigue, although not too much for this book.) I loved the parley between Raen (main character) and Pol (sort of antagonist but turned out to be antihero-ish). They were completely on equal terms when it came to connivance and ruthlessness that it made Raen just as terrifying as all the male villains (a lot of media doesn’t do women the same justice). That had always been the case with Cherryh – her aliens are wonderfully alien, her men are emotional and exquisite, and her women absolutely frightening. It’s special in that her women are NOT devoid of emotion (no “ice queen” or “stoic assassin” here), on the contrary, usually it’s driven by passion or hunger for power or, in this specific case, revenge for the death of her entire family.
Her male characters, on the other hand, tend to be the “heart” of a story. The helpless ones, the insecure ones (which most of them overcome if they’re given enough screentime), the downtrodden ones. And I don’t mean all her men are like that, I mean if there is a character in an ensemble who’s more on the powerless side, it’s assigned to a male character and not a female one, unlike convention. There’re plenty of strong male characters in Serpent’s Reach, by all means, but the least ruthless (arguably?) was a clone named Jim who eventually gained independence through his own volition. It’s refreshing to see, and all the power dynamic he had were flipped from the norm (at least in 1980s terms). I love that he eventually gained the same mindset as Raen through “programming”, which brought out the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. I also love that her entire Union-side stories tend to focus exclusively on this because of the clones. It just added more dimension to what it meant to be human (along with, of course, the super non-human aliens such as the majat and how they navigate a world completely different from the various strains of future homo sapiens.)
Reading Cherryh’s books makes me happy. It’s escapism at its finest for me, because I can forget about how depressing the real world works and just lose myself in this new, more fascinating future. I know some sci-fi people love because it really could happen, like Star Trek give people hope and optimism for the human kind and such. Well, I don’t think this series is it, necessarily. In fact some facets of it I hope never come to life. It’s like the world of Game of Thrones – no way you want to actively strive to create a world just as such, but if you’re already in it, it is quite an awesome ride to live vicariously through.