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Foreigner: (10th Anniversary Edition) (Foreigner series)

4/5. A displaced colonial population of humans is forced to co-exist with aliens on an industrializing pre-spaceflight planet. Only one person is allowed to contact the aliens and act as ambassador and interpreter. He becomes entangled in local alien politics, and bigger things.

Wow, okay. This is my first Cherryh, and I came to it with an uninformed notion that she pumps out a lot of bland space opera. Wrong wrong wrong. This is strange and difficult, with a chilly interior landscape in ways that are hard to describe.

The first three-quarters of this book is, on the surface, very slow, consisting almost entirely of people drinking tea together and having a series of assortedly confused or awkward conversations. Then the book turns into an intense nail-biter of physical and emotional endurance. This turnabout is completely and fairly foreshadowed, mind, but I still wasn't quite ready for it. There's a richness here I did not anticipate. The foreigner of the title is the ambassador, the only human to appear in this book. The book is chiefly concerned with alienness of several kinds, the ambassador from his hosts and, ultimately, from himself. Cherryh is incredibly good at aliens here. She bypasses the physical almost entirely – these people are for the most part physically like humans, as far as we can tell – but that's just so she can put her finger on a more fundamental emotional and linguistic otherness. This book tosses out an alien word for an alien concept early on, and lets the reader come to several incorrect conclusions about what it means as the ambassador imposes his human ideas, catches himself at it, tries again, fails again. I'm not entirely sure I understand all of what happened here, but it was turning a lot of odd gears in unexpected ways, and it is supposed to be dislocating.

Clever, chilly, interesting.

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