1. My question here is this: does this book stand on its own? I don’t know. But this question will guide these notes.
2. What a wonderful novel. This book carries on the quality of Hellburner: a well paced story that doesn’t forget to stop and take a walk in the woods; engaging, damaged characters overcoming themselves as much as others; there is no such thing as a free lunch -esque interpersonal relationships and politics. But this novel definitely is its own thing: Cherryh engages that broad political scope that affects her macro focus on the characters in a more direct, more explanatory way. In Hellburner, she focuses clearly on trying to get the ship to work. In this twenty years revenge tale, the context is everything that has occurred over the last twenty or so years at Mariner, Viking, Pell, Tripoint, the Rim Stations, Sol, and on the two ships that are the focus of the novel: Sprite and Corinthian. The characters respond to the big political shifts, but being free merchanters, they know more and discuss more of the broader politics. This wide angle perspective and narrow character focus creates an intimidatingly intriguing novel and it reminds me of The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin in that way. But I’m not sure that somebody who hasn’t already gathered what Tripoint is from Cherryh’s other works, should read it. The intricate relationships and political maneuverings within the Alliance play a most important role here, but they are alluded to in other novels that I have read, allowing me a familiarity that may have helped me understand more than the novel gave. I’m not sure, but it’s a possibility that reading at least Downbelow Station first really helped make this novel superb for me.
3. The writing here is superb, some of the best I’ve read from Cherryh. She manages to communicate things the reader must imagine, but in a way that makes them still strange. For instance, a portion of Tom’s story involves the spacer-sin of staying awake during jump.
They say you don’t come back sane, you leave a part of yourself out there in the chaos of the parallel universe. Well, among the Mazianni, it’s a mark of a good navigator to grow used to that place, to learn to read the sights and sounds of it, to literally feel themselves passing by masses, to feel starships around them.This military necessity creates a sort of mysticism in certain circles, and Tom runs into Capella, described perfectly as a “lend-lease navigator” from the Mazianni fleet—which has fractured into at least three parts: The Fleet, Mazianni, and Signy. Capella is from The Fleet and initiates Tom into this activity of staying awake when all else are tranked out—initially from pure lust and later for emergency purposes. Her guidance allows him to remain sane. But more profoundly, because Cherryh’s voice doesn’t allow a ton of description until a character sees something new or in a new way, it allows wonderful and beautiful descriptions:
He lay still—he thought he was lying down, Saby lying near him, but whether it was light or dark didn't seem relevant to his eyes. He saw, somehow, or something like. The brain kept shifting things around or the walls truly ran in streams of color. Things just were. Couldn't see Capella, then shivered at a strangeness as her hand met his body.But these are framed stunningly—Cherryh just drops them on the reader from nowhere: a lengthy, semi-erotic dream sequence describing jump to a tranked out human is strange, then gets stranger when he wakes up and the reader just doesn’t know until later what happened:
Pale, then. Capella's blonde, brazen flash and try-me attitude, Capella standing there with her bare arms resting through bars he recalled he wasn't dreaming, with the bracelet of stars evident on her wrist. It wasn't the freedom of the docks he was in, he was in a box he couldn't get out of, and an exposure that let the whole ship come and stare at him if they liked.It’s fractured and seeming nonsensical. But by the end of the book, the reader has a pretty good idea what being in jump would be like—unfathomable as a whole, but bits of it parsable.
Capella gave him an I-don't-give-a-damn rake of the eyes, leaned there, enigma like the fatal holocards. Her hands were death and life together, the serpent and the equation that cracked the light barrier, the bracelet no honest spacer wore…
Colors washed to right and left of him, red and blue and into infrareds and ultraviolets, a tunnel at the black peripheries of his vision. He daren't come any further. Christian wasn't his friend. This woman wasn't. This dream was destructive. He could make it go away.
He felt the loneliness, and the cold. Then… just felt/ smelled/saw the colors a while. And vast, terrifying silence. He tried to move, then. He couldn't feel things. Couldn't tell up from down. He leaned into space, flinched back toward solid limits, and thought he was falling.It’s these sentences—short, declarative—that jump around and don’t seem to fit together, but sometimes they do in a rambling, rolling way: the sound of it reminds him of music from another time, but he can’t remember time. But then Cherryh also allows phrases to shift out of place: something looks green but tastes purple and orange, and smells blue. These experimental steps are phenomenal, and her description is astounding. She spends a lot of pages to do what she does with jump, and I loved every second of it.
Arms were there. Caught him. Hands showed him where level was.
—However, without the context of the other Merchanter novels setting up that aversion to not tranking for jump, I’m not sure this exposition of what that experience is like would actually fly. It’s maybe a third into the novel when Tom wakes up in a jump, and I feel like I wouldn’t have bought how insane some people go when that happens if I hadn’t read the others. It’s as if Cherryh is saying it’ll drive you crazy while showing a character or three who ends up coming through it alright. A bit of a contradiction.
4. There are a few main characters: Tom, Marie, Austin, Christian, and Capella. And each of them gets portions of chapters devoted to them in a way that tells the story from multiple points of view. It is Tom’s story, but it’s told from the perspective of others as well as his own, and it grows out of others’ stories—kind of like how our lives do. This challenges the reader to make up their own mind about the story and characters within, instead of spoon-feading the reader opinions to hold about characters. I like this tactic when George RR Martin does it, and I like it here.
5. On one hand this is a revenge story and the theme is Marie’s revenge for rape. But the real theme is Tom's coming of age, his realization of reality. The book takes place twenty years after the rape and Tom’s still trying to find a place, a group of people he can belong to. And he finds it in the unlikeliest place: on the ship of the rapist, his father. But it’s not because Austin is his dad, but because Saby and Tink befriend him, accept him, support him in a way his mother and her ship never did. Yes, he hates his father. But he wants a new start and it's really the only place, the only choice he has. This theme is all tied up with ignorance and codes of conduct in a way that really strikes home for me. And Marie's rape echoes where each echo adds some to the reader's understanding and keeps drawing one deeper. This theme is applicable and understandable to somebody who never has read any other Cherryh.
6. I love this book, a lot. On the one hand the theme allows the book to stand on its own while the political context is probably a neutral influence—it may or may not help to have read her other novels. Taking the jump awake almost certainly relies upon the other novels to set the stage, but could potentially be grasped by a new reader—which I think is unlikely. So, on the whole, the book probably doesn’t require one to have read her other work, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And for that, despite this being a real treat of a novel, it doesn’t quite stand on its own. But that’s the nature of a long series like this—seven novels in this Merchanter or Company Wars branch of Cherryh’s broader Alliance-Union universe. So I love this novel, a lot, but can’t quite recommend it as easily as Downbelow Station.