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Pretender by C. J.  Cherryh
Review by Edward Carmien
DAW Hardcover Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 075640374X
Date: 07 March, 2006 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Can any author sustain interest in a series that runs to its eighth book? The main challenge is to balance on a slender reed in between "jumping the shark" on the one side and spiraling into repetitious sameness on the other. It is possible, but it is certainly not common. Despite being a hearty Cherryh partisan for decades (see The Cherryh Odyssey if one has doubts) it is with a heavy heart I report Pretender slips off the slender reed. Cherryh does not "jump the shark," which is fortunate.

There are no spectacular rearrangements of characters or settings in Pretender. The pot is not stirred for the sake of stirring it. For those unfamiliar with the shark-jumping metaphor, imagine how the writers of the old Happy Days TV show arrived at the spectacle of the Fonz performing a waterskiing jump over a shark.

Instead, Pretender simply lacks the components of a compelling story for readers not already in love with the characters and the setting. In Foreigner, Bren Cameron is pitched into political controversy when the stable arrangement between atevi, who are native to the world in which the story takes place, and humans is jeopardized by the return of the interstellar spacecraft that delivered humans into orbit hundreds of years in the past. Cameron is faced with a political, linguistic, and psychological challenge, that of doing the right thing in order to keep the peace. There is some external action but the primary stresses are internal.

In the second book the challenge to established order continues. Invader introduces conflict between Cameron and his human government. The spacecraft in orbit is generally isolated from the surface, but two of the crew are landed in order to act as liaisons between the atevi and human governments and the ship, which desperately wishes for the ground-pounders to gain heavy-lift earth to orbit transport ability. Again, Cameron must act correctly to maintain the peace, facing down conservatives both atevi and human who have powerfully negative agendas.

And so the series continues. As part of this review your trusty reviewer re-read Foreigner and Invader (and made a good start on Inheritor, but deadlines are deadlines) and found them compelling and interesting reads. Those new to Cherryh and interested in some of the best the field has to offer in alien/human relations should start with Foreigner and move on from there.

Readers wishing to avoid so-called "spoilers" should stop reading now. Details about Pretender's plot follow.

Pretender, unfortunately, lacks the juice to entice new readers on its own. Cameron is with his trusty bodyguards, including his lover, Jago, as well as the aiji Tabini's son and the aiji Tabini's grandmother, Ilsidi. In Destroyer this cadre returned from space to discover that a pretender to the "throne" has chased Tabini into the hills. With Cameron's return events are sparked that return Tabini to power.

There is some politicking, as the assassin's guild puts in an appearance, but as the lackeys of the usurping power they are soon disposed of. A local groundswell of support follows Tabini's tempestuous return to the capital. Cameron rides most of the way there in a bus along with Tabini's son.

Changing to rail, they arrive at the seat of the government and Tabini takes over, declaring that none of the pretender's actions were lawful and that any decisions taken by the pretender must be resubmitted to become legitimate.

Where in earlier books Cameron has always played a central role in the success of Tabini's government, in Pretender he does nearly nothing but struggle with physical discomfort during the long bus ride to the capital. He is never in any particular danger, faces down no challenges, solves no problems. The charm of Pretender is entirely in the soap-opera elements of his personal relations. Caught sharing a hot bath with his lover, he worries that this impropriety (for he is the alien in this context) in the house of a staunch traditionalist might de-rail Tabini's bid to retake power. Even that worry is short-lived, however.

Notably lacking from Pretender is any mention of what the human government on the nearby island continent is doing during the year the usurper is in charge. In previous books Cameron's absence for a day or two is enough for human conservatives to launch dangerous plots that threaten to rock the boat of cooperation that has served the two cultures well over more than two centuries. One of the dramatic mainstays of the series is therefore missing, and Pretender is thereby less compelling.

Series fiction presents a number of challenges to any author. There is a certain contract readers expect to be followed: the main characters, who become familiar over many books, enjoy a certain level of script immunity. Killing them off risks invoking the "jumping the shark" effect, and often it means such characters can't grow or change over time. Bren Cameron has certainly grown over time, and the series is better for that fact. Yet Cherryh, apparently unwilling to allow even secondary characters to experience much change, leaves readers of Pretender with the too-comfortable feeling that all will be well.

Ilsidi goes on a dangerous car journey and escapes unscathed. Tabini's son and his new bodyguards suffer no harm. Cameron's coterie of bodyguards are unhurt. Booby-trapped fueling stations don't blow up. Politically valuable space shuttles aren't sabotaged or destroyed. The human island-continent isn't invaded. Tabini is denied the chance to face down the usurper, who escapes unharmed into the wilderness. In a culture that possesses some fourteen words for betrayal, none of Cameron or Tabini's staff prove unreliable at a key, dramatic moment.

There are cute moments aplenty. The atevi leader's son has become Cameron's constant companion, and his youth provides opportunity for smiles for those familiar with the series. Jago and Cameron have settled into a comfortable if socially unacceptable (to atevi and humans at large) relationship. Ilsidi is her usual cane-thumping self.

As with Destroyer, those who are reading the series because (as is often true with Cherry's readers) they MUST, will not need this review to continue enjoying the series. New readers beware: this is not the right book to begin the exciting journey into the world of the atevi. Foreigner is that book.

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