Invader and Inheritor are the second and third books in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. I reviewed the first novel, Foreigner itself, here. That review led to some interesting discussion about (main character) Bren’s agency or lack thereof, which in turn led to a great guest post by author Ann Leckie (Ancillary Justice, my review) about Bren’s agency in particular and the concept of agency in general.
This review is probably best seen as a recap of my thoughts about the second and third book in this series. It will assume you’ve read Foreigner. It will actually mention some major plot points from Invader and Inheritor too. There will be spoilers. You have been warned. If you’re curious about and/or new to the series, go read my review of Foreigner instead, because most of what follows will a) be spoiler-y and b) probably not make a whole lot of sense to you.
The major game changer that affects the tone and plot of Invader (book 2) is that, as of the final chapters of Foreigner, Bren is now actually aware of what set off all the craziness: the return of the Phoenix spaceship to the abandoned human station still orbiting the atevi planet. For many reasons, this return has created shockwaves running through both the atevi population and the human colony on Mospheira.
As Ann Leckie explained in the aforementioned post, Bren’s awareness of this fact is not a prerequisite to him having agency or even affecting what happens. Neither is him having the power to affect the situation nor, obviously, his relative physical weakness. Leckie used the metaphor of Bren skiing downhill, able to make small changes in direction, react to the terrain, and so on.
To stretch that metaphor right to the breaking point: now Bren knows about the ship’s return, he realizes why he’s suddenly on the Black Diamond ski slope instead of the bunny slope. He’s aware of the event that started everything off, so he can now consciously reason through the various ways that the ships’ reappearance affects the future of the two races. It allows him to plot a course of action that’s more proactive (to use a word that still gives me the willies after a decade in the business world). It means he’s much less being shuttled around and steered by others, and more able to directly and consciously steer the story.
Bren is basically dealing with the appearance of a third major power center: next to the atevi and the humans, there’s now also the ship. Of course that’s a major oversimplification, because each of the three sides has its own sub-factions: humans who are in favor of closer relations with the atevi and those who are radically opposed to it, and vice versa for the atevi. The addition of the third element—the ship, with its own sub-factions and motivations and history and complex relationship with the planet-bound humans—shakes all of this up.
I’d argue that one of the most significant decisions taken in these novels so far is the creation of the “ship-paidhi” position: ambassadors from the ship coming down to the planet, one to interact with Mospheira and one with the atevi. This creates a way for the two pre-existing sides to deal with the third (and, again, vice versa) on a more equal basis. It represents, in one way at least, the atevi taking control of their own fate and taking steps to go into space themselves. It also, significantly, reinforces the importance of the paidhi position itself.
The pivot point of the story happens right in the middle of this two book set with the arrival of Jase-paidhi and Mercheson-paidhi. Invader, which leads up to that point, shows Bren negotiating with the ship and the atevi, as well as dealing with his counterpart Deanna Hanks, who is sort of an antipope-paidhi sent by Mospheira’s conservative faction. Inheritor, which goes forward from that pivot point, shows Bren, the atevi, and the two ship-paidhi—mainly Jase, as he’s the one on the atevi side—dealing with the ongoing waves created by the reappearance of the Phoenix.
Jase is one of the most complex characters in the series so far. He struggles with linguistic and cultural adjustment. He’s not just homesick—he’s never been on an actual planet before, and just having to deal with weather and open skies rather than endless ship corridors is incredibly taxing. C.J. Cherryh does an amazing job showing the psychological and emotional strain he is under, and then towards the end throws in a major revelation that completely re-positions the markers for everything Jase-related that came before.
Towards the end of Inheritor, Bren contemplates how much has changed since the assassination attempt in the first scene set in the present day. Atevi society—or at least the Western Association, under the guidance of aiji Tabini—has been set on a new course. They’re negotiating independently with the ship and, with their larger territory and new scientific input from the ship, are actually ahead in the space race. Meanwhile, the fractures in the fabric of Mospheiran society have become more apparent.
Maybe most noticeably, Bren himself has turned from a relatively invisible court official into a major source of power. He’s no longer housed in a small garden apartment but instead lives in a suite of rooms right next to Tabini. He wears a ribbon in his braid like atevi lords, but where atevi lords would usually use this to show their house colors, his braid is a white one—an important symbol of his position.
While all these major societal and political changes are taking place, Cherryh also continues to build up the complexity in Bren’s character and, through his eyes, the complexity of many of his atevi characters. As for Bren, the difficulties in his family life continue: the inability to help the way his mother and others are affected by the outfall of his political actions, the rift with his former partner Barb.
On the atevi side, Tano and Algini are a great example of the way Cherryh gradually reveals details that were previously in the background: at first almost faceless replacements for Jago and Banichi, now becoming major and meaningful characters themselves. Ilisidi, the fierce aiji-dowager who represents so much of the evolution of the atevi, is still a treasure of a character. Her delight in verbal sparring makes the scenes she appears in some of the best in these novels.
And of course, Jago and Banichi continue to play a major role in different ways. Bren’s evolving relationship with these two is just a pleasure to read. With Banichi, he’s developed something like a verbal shorthand for the many differences between human and atevi consciousness, leading to wonderful little touches of sardonic humor expressed in just a few words. And the growing closeness between Jago and Bren is just a wonder to behold.
I obviously love these novels. I’ve actually read the first six books of the series once before, maybe a decade ago, but seem to have forgotten almost everything except a few key scenes, so my reread of these first three has been an interesting experience: I’m seeing certain elements like a first time reader, and I believe some details are jumping out at me more because at least I had some basic recollection of the broad picture. I’m looking forward to “rereading” the second trilogy soon.