- Really good alien culture
- Great political thriller
- Awesome main characters
- Might be a bit slow for some people
Foreigner is the first book in the eponymous Foreigner Universe. Before I begin I have to confess that I have read and re-read all the books in this series. I’ve read them at least once a year since I was fifteen. I love these books. Even so, I will try to give you a fair examination of this book’s greatest successes and worst failings.
Foreigner follows the low ranked, sole human envoy to an alien species. This book covers what happens to him after surviving an illegal assassination attempt. As you read, you’ll discover an alien culture, the political landscape the species built and how this species interacts with Humanity. You’ll discover the driving point for the entire series at the climax of this story, which is: WHY there was an attempt on Bren Cameron’s life. What you never figure out is exactly WHO made the attempt.
Foreigner is incredibly deep and introduces you to an alien species that feels real. They’re humanoid, but they aren’t just strange-looking humans. C.J. Cherryh makes these aliens different on a biological level. The story revolves around political intrigue and interspecies interaction. It isn’t without its flaws. Not that I would call them flaws, really.
First off, it moves slowly. The entire first book in the series takes place over the course of only a week or so. Some people also expressed annoyance with Bren Cameron’s introspection and concern over making mistakes. M wife, especially, complains that the book never reveals the big whodunnit. Sure, you get ideas, but never the Sherlock Holmes revelatory moment of “So, it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Wrench!”
Of course I think this is part of what makes the books so good. In life, I imagine, political expediency means that you often have to give up curiosity on the details of things like that, instead focusing on solving the underlying and larger issue at hand. Nevertheless, I assure you, the books do eventually reveal who the assassin reports to, though not until a later book.
These are among my favorite books of all time. They aren’t for everyone, but if you enjoy this style of writing: I promise they’ll transport you to another place. An interesting and deep world with secrets to uncover. It only gets better from here. Trust me.
Foreigner doesn’t begin by introducing the main character of the series. Instead, it briefly covers a harrowing tale of a lost starship and the heroic efforts of its crew. Immediately after that, the book briefly covers first contact with the Atevi. The background of how Humans arrived on the Atevi world is important and has a serious impact on the rest of the story. Even so, the series explains most of it better and later.
CJ Cherry introduces Bren Cameron immediately after the opening vignettes. In fact, the book opens with an assassination attempt which Bren foils using an illegal gun. Not that guns are illegal, mind you, except for the only Human allowed in Atevi society. After firing a couple of shots, Bren meets two characters that will follow him throughout the series: Banichi and Jago. The pair belong to the Assassin’s Guild. Yes, you read that correctly.
In the Atevi society, assassination is legal. Assuming, of course, you file appropriately with the Guild. Bren expresses alarm that there was no filing of “Intent” against him. He’s the only human on the mainland, he’s got a minor clerical post, and he doesn’t see himself or his job as remotely controversial. He ends up being wrong on both counts.
I’ll be very careful here not to spoil the story, but after the attempt the Aiji(think president/monarch) ships Bren off to an ancient Atevi fortress. While there he meets the Aiji Dowager, Ilisidi. The Aiji’s grandmother is powerful, old, and has managed to survive while most of her enemies are dead. I rarely find characters as compelling to me as Ilisidi, no matter how much I read in a given year. While at the fortress, Malguri, Bren drinks poisoned tea, learns to ride, and faces several life-changing struggles.
Foreigner’s Best Points
I love this book for a few reasons. I identify with the main character. No, not only due to how similar Bren and Brent are. I felt like an outsider for a long time. I still do, sometimes. No, I’m not the sole Human living in a world of aliens…at least I don’t think I am. Each of us has to interpret the actions and intent of the people around us and it is hard.
I also love that this book portrays aliens as truly alien. The Atevi aren’t just funny-looking Humans. They do look odd, sure. More importantly, however, they act oddly. They don’t like or love people. Instead, Atevi feel an emotion just as strong as love but completely different. As the book notes, sometimes an Ateva will react the same way a Human does, but probably not for the same reasons. I think this is an amazing way to portray aliens that too few science fiction authors consider. If you don’t read this book for any other reason, read it because the Atevi are truly alien.
Additionally, I enjoy the political aspects of this book. Every time I read Foreigner I am amazed at the level of thought and detail CJ Cherryh put into the interactions between characters. As the series progresses that becomes even more evident. Again, despite clearly being speculative fiction, it feels like it could actually happen. It feels like the politics are real and matter to the story.
Finally, I love this book because it opens my imagination. It’s the beginning of an exceptional series (18 books at present). The characters and situations intrigue me and I enjoy the series just as much listening to it now as when I read it the first time.
Foreigner’s Worst Points
Foreigner, at its worst, is slow. I don’t personally mind, but it’s not for everyone. I thought about saying that not a lot is going on throughout the book, but that’s not accurate. There is a lot going on throughout the book, you’re just kept in the dark about it almost as much as Bren is. It’s not full of action. It’s full of dialog, introspection, and political and cultural undertext. If you’re like my wife, that’ll drive you nuts.
Foreigner’s other major failing, for some people, is that you don’t find out WHO actually tried to assassinate Bren. CJ Cherryh does reveal WHY there is an attempt on Bren’s life, and you’ll just have to be satisfied with the answers you get. To be clear: this isn’t a mystery novel. It’s not Agatha Christie. It’s better than that (at least in my opinion).
Read/Listen to Foreigner
You can listen to Foreigner through Audible. It’s my go-to audio-book source. You can also buy a copy from Amazon. Links for both are below.
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