Previously I’ve read Cherryh in small
dollops – a single novel at a time. This isn’t because she
bores me. To the contrary: I’ve found her novels to be such an
intense experience that I’ve simply felt the need to take a
break after finishing them. Partly to rest; partly to savor.
This time, though, I decided to punch
through the chunk of Union-Alliance novels I owned but hadn’t
read yet: MERCHANTER’S LUCK, RIMRUNNERS, TRIPOINT, and
FINITY’S END. Throwing them into my suitcase, I flew down to
, and read them on the beach at the
resort while sipping Heather crème.
Cherryh is just plain good. There is a
grandeur to a simple thing carried out with subtlety and grace.
And it’s that grandeur which Cherryh achieves with
Cherryh establishes the premise of her
novel from the very first sentence: “Their names were Sandor
and Allison… Kreja and Reilly respectively. Reilly meant
something in the offices and bars of Viking Station: it meant
the merchanters of the great ship
Again… Kreja meant nothing.”
MERCHANTER’S LUCK is, at its heart, a
character drama – a powerful, poignant character drama. You
could call it a ROMEO AND JULIET for the future, but it would
only give you the most grotesque approximation of what this
story is about. What you get to see are two characters brought
together who fundamentally change each other’s lives. It’s
not easy. It’s not simple. But it’s human.
Cherryh has the rare gift of being able to
bare a character’s soul to the reader, and she uses that
talent to great effect here:
Reading MERCHANTER’S LUCK is like watching two brightly
burning stars plunging one into the other, each searing you with
the heat of their existence. It’s an intense and primal
reality that Cherryh shows you.
And, on that note, let’s talk about…
Cherryh tells you more about the character's thought process
than the character themselves are probably aware of. At first
you think it's unnatural; "No one thinks like that,"
you think. But as you acclimate yourself to it, you are startled
to discover a deep and profound truthfulness to the thoughts of
Cherryh's characters. Because she raises the subconscious to the
conscious; and it's a conceit, but it works.
Jo Walton describes Cherryh’s
Union-Alliance novels as “historical fiction”. There’s a
lot of truth to that. Every novel is set across a small slice of
a backdrop that stretches for decades and light years in every
direction. With every novel you read in the Union-Alliance
sequence, your understanding of that historical backdrop deepens
and each individual work becomes ever more faceted as a result
the reflections it casts upon the others.
It’s these two factors, in combination,
which make RIMRUNNERS purr like a high-performance engine. She
takes her main character, pinions her to the decaying days of a
vividly invoked civil war, and then plunges into her psyche.
After we’re given a chance to get a feel for what it’s like
to be inside her skin, Cherryh wrenches her into a completely
different situation – something roughly akin to, and with all
the paranoia of, a Cold War submarine drama.
What makes RIMRUNNERS compelling reading,
from one end to the other, is the experience of living on the
razor edge between death and desperation. Cherryh captures the
inherent intensity of her character and then pumps it straight
into your brain.
Speaking of which…
Cherryh excels at capturing utterly diverse points of view with
truthfulness and integrity. Cherryh’s characters don’t see
things differently because some of them are stupid or naïve or
ignorant (although some of them are) – she doesn’t go in for
any of those cheats. Cherryh’s character see things
differently because they are fundamentally DIFFERENT PEOPLE. And
that’s pretty impressive because there just aren’t that many
authors who are capable of that even at their best, yet Cherryh
effortlessly accomplishes it with every novel.
Given this unique strength of Cherryh’s,
TRIPOINT is particularly interesting because it’s
fundamentally the story of a character caught between two
utterly different points of view – one embodied by his mother;
the other embodied by his father – and the catalytic events
which force him to find his own compromise and synthesis between
those dichotomous poles.
A lot of Cherryh’s works seem to have
identity as a central theme. Her characters are driven, often
compulsively, by the questions of, “Who am I?” and “Who do
I want to be?” Unsurprisingly, many of her stories are also
tales of adolescence, and that’s the place where TRIPOINT
Which brings us to…
… another tale of adolescence and
identity. In many ways, the central character dramas of TRIPOINT
and FINITY’S END are very similar to each other. Both take a
young protagonist from one environment and thrust them into
another, forcing them to adapt and find a new identity for
But there the similarity essentially ends.
Not only are the individual characters so unlike each other as
to result in completely different stories, but the plots against
which their character arcs are silhouetted are fundamentally
different. TRIPOINT is a space opera of pirates and privateers.
FINITY’S END is a political drama.
Neither novel is quite as satisfactory as
it could have been. The character arc in TRIPOINT seems rushed
and unfinished. In FINITY’S END the political drama and the
central character drama are not quite tightly knit enough to
seem a seamless whole. (And although the lengthy discussions of
taxation policy in FINITY’S END were interesting to me for
their pseudo-historical implications, I rather suspect that most
will simply find those passages interminable.)
I will also say that, for whatever reason,
midway through FINITY’S END I found myself getting sick of
every single Cherryh viewpoint character alternating between
shaking and numbness. This isn’t fair to FINITY’S END,
because it just happened to be the novel where Cherryh’s
authorial twitch of shaking-numbness caught up with me.
As exemplary as any of these novels are on
their own rights, I was particularly impressed by the strength
they draw from each other. Cherryh never allows her plot to
exist without impacting her characters; nor does she allow her
characters to exist without affecting her setting. As a result,
the more you learn of the Union-Alliance universe, the more
depth each novel in the series possesses. It follows that I
must, some day soon, come back to these novels (and the others
in the series) and read them again. The ever-shifting,
ever-growing context of Cherryh’s work gives each novel a
fresh perspective and existence when viewed in each others’
Somewhere in the interstice of these four
novels lies an understanding of what it means to be a merchanter
plying the interstellar lanes. That such an understanding is
never spelled out or given a pithy summary makes it all the more
meaningful and true. It is an understanding crafted by Cherryh,
but wrought in your own imagination.
And that’s the true strength and legacy
of these novels.
MERCHANTER’S LUCK: A
FINITY’S END: A