C. J. Cherryh’s The Chanur Saga is an almost-omnibus edition of her tetralogy about Pyanfar Chanur and her ship, the interstellar trader The Pride of Chanur. Because of length, the “omnibus” volume contains the first three in the series (The Pride of Chanur, Chanur’s Venture, and The Kif Strike Back), and one would be well-advised to be sure that Chanur’s Homecoming, issued separately, is within easy reach, lest one be left hanging off a cliff.
Pyanfar Chanur is captain of The Pride of Chanur, one of three trading ships owned and operated by the hani clan of Chanur. The hani, a species relatively new to space, are members of the Compact, a loose alliance of starfaring species which includes the mahendo’sat, vaguely simian neighbors and the species who brought the space age to Anuurn, the hani home system; the stsho, frail creatures seemingly composed of pearl and cobweb who have three sexes and are constitutionally completely lacking in personal bravery (and who also happen to be the Compact’s definition of duplicity); the kif, more interested in petty piracy and spurious lawsuits than in honest trade; and three methane breathing species: the tc’a, who are barely comprehensible and so the front men for the methane breathers; the chi, who may be pets or symbionts to the tc’a – or may have some other relationship entirely; and the knnn, whom no one really understands, save that they are technologically extremely advanced, they do understand the concept of trade (sort of) and they sail through space singing – again, maybe.
The Pride is docked at Meetpoint Station, a major trading nexus because of its central location in Compact space. Two things happen to turn this fairly routine trading voyage into the hani version of Day of the Jackal: a member of a heretofore unknown species invades the Pride seeking refuge (he has been a captive of the kif, and they want him back), and Pyanfar is informed sub rosa that the kif have found a leader who may succeed in uniting them, which means big trouble indeed. This tip comes from a mahendo’sat trader known to Pyanfar as Goldtooth, although as events prove, he is somewhat more than a merchant.
And thus the reader is launched on an adventure that spans known space, involves interstellar politics of a particularly subtle and nasty sort, and leads not only to armed conflict but the awareness of a new power that may upset the entire balance of the Compact – not to mention a threat to the entire hani species. The players have agendas that span the interests of the various species involved, and even reflect factional differences within species.
C. J. Cherryh has always been able to construct a tight, fast-paced story peopled by strong characters, and her universe building is second to none. The Chanur Saga, which takes place in an offshoot of her Alliance-Union universe, is no exception, and has the added interest of layers and layers of intrigue, which has become another Cherryh trademark.
What shines in this series is Cherryh’s ability to create believable alien personalities and cultures. The hani, for example, are strongly modeled on lions, from their retractile claws to their impressive manes; they are also a society in which the men are pampered lords, fit only for hunting and managing the household (boys are exiled to the backlands as they reach maturity, until they are ready to challenge an older lord for lands and position), and the women run things (the crews of the trading ships are all female until Pyanfar, shocking hanidom in general, takes her husband into space). The kif are quintessential predators, a society in which treachery is second nature and a single defeat can end a leader’s career – and his life. The quirk is that the “alien” in this story is the human refugee, Tully, whose behavior is incomprehensible, annoying, and often embarrassing to the hani.
There are a few passages that suffer from too much “literariness” – digressions that never quite derail the story, although ultimately they don’t contribute, either. (The sequel to this series, Chanur’s Legacy, is somewhat over-uses internal monologue, which could have been handled more economically to better effect.) When it is focused on advancing the story, as when Pyanfar is unraveling the layers of obfuscation surrounding her, it works beautifully, building to compelling intensity. Also in evidence is Cherryh’s gift for dialogue, which slips from crew-talk to pidgin to official formality with never a lurch.
The Pride of Chanur could almost stand alone; there is a strong resolution at the end, but enough potential is left that Cherryh is able to make a gripping adventure out of the three-volume continuation. (Which is a good thing – the setting and characters were just too good to leave it at one book.) As far as space opera goes, this is one of the best.
(DAW Books, 2000)
(DAW Books, 1997)