I wanted to like The Pride of Chanur, I really did. Science fiction with a heavy emphasis on alien cultures and/or alien linguistics is like catnip to me, and, for that reason, I've wanted to try Cherryh's works for a long time. Unfortunately, her writing style didn't work for me. This is not a long book – the print edition is only a little over 200 pages – and yet I spent more than a month alternately slogging through it or avoiding it.
The story is fairly simple. Pyanfar Chanur is the captain of the hani spaceship The Pride of Chanur. She discovers a stowaway, an odd-looking being she quickly realizes is sentient. He's a human, and none of the aliens in the book have ever seen anything like him before. Pyanfar has him put together a translation tape and eventually learns that his name is Tully and he's an escapee from a kif ship. The kif tortured Tully and his friends, and he was the only one who survived. Pyanfar doesn't like the kif, who are widely known as pirates and slave-traders, so she decides to help Tully. This decision ends up putting The Pride of Chanur, other hani ships, and even the hani homeworld in grave danger.
Okay, so let me get back to Cherryh's writing style, which is so distinctive it got its own section in Cherryh's Wikipedia article. Although the book was written in the third person, it was so tightly focused on Pyanfar's viewpoint that it sometimes felt like it was first person POV. Descriptions of hani characters were limited because, as a hani herself, there were things that Pyanfar simply wouldn't note. The descriptions of Tully made him feel very alien, because to Pyanfar he was – she had to interpret his appearance and behavior through what she knew of her own people and other alien species. For example, his hair and beard looked to her like a short, bedraggled hani mane.
This made for fascinating reading, at first. I don't think I've ever read anything that was written in quite this way, and I loved learning a little about the various aliens and the hani through what was pretty much Pyanfar's eyes (although I later learned I was wrong about some things – for example, I thought the Mahendo'stat looked wolf-like, but they're actually supposed to be more primate-like).
Then Cherryh ramped up the action and adrenaline a bit, and her style suddenly became a lot harder for me to deal with. There was tons of jargon and not much in the way of explanations, since Pyanfar was an experienced captain fighting for her and her crew's life - no time to think about the specifics of whatever maneuver she was executing while trying to escape the kif. I had trouble understanding the specifics of what was going on, although I could at least still follow the general situation. I found myself skimming the book's action scenes, which was a bigger problem once I got closer to the end of the book. I'm still not sure why
the kif left, since I had thought they were winning.
That said, I still want to read more of Cherryh's works in general and this series in particular, because there were aspects and ideas I loved, even if the execution didn't work for me. Hani clans (family groups) were fascinating. They were similar to lion prides, with a central male and lots of females. The hani viewed males as being too high-strung and incapable of controlling their emotions to be suitable for long periods of time on a spaceship, so all hani crews were entirely female. Tully being a male made Pyanfar very nervous, and Tully had difficulty wrapping his brain around the idea that all the hani around him were female. Besides the hani, another alien species I'd love to learn more about is the stsho, which have three genders and fragile, changeable personalities.
I also liked, for once, reading science fiction in which the human is not the bestest, cleverest, most secretly wonderful being ever. In fact, I think nearly every species got to display its strengths and weaknesses except humans. Tully was the guy who got the whole story started, but he didn't actually do much besides try really hard not to get killed or turned into a slave. That meant doing exactly what Pyanfar asked him to do, which, for a good chunk of the book, was limited to helping put together a translation tape so that everyone could understand him. By the way, I also liked the way the language stuff was handled – the translation technology wasn't 100% perfect, leading to occasional garbled bits. It felt pretty realistic, even if the “tape” part was somewhat dated.
Like I said, I do want to try another one of Cherryh's books at a later date. I've got Foreigner on my TBR pile, and I'd like to read the next Chanur novel. However, I'm a little worried that, while Cherryh's worlds will be a pleasure, her writing style will make learning about them a chore. Here's hoping her style eventually grows on me.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)