In my prior review of Deceiver, I commented on how impossible it was to enter the series from that book because of the sheer weight of all that had gone before and how nobody should expect a writer to be able to do that. Then at the beginning of Betrayer, C. J. Cherryh pretty much does so and makes it coherent and cogent with little evident effort. Drat.
Now that said, a summary is not a substitute for knowledge. If I told you War and Peace was essentially, 'Napoleon invades Russia, goes badly' you'd have the essential plot, but so what? Even there you are starting with the information that most people, other than American college students know: Napoleon was French, Russia and France are countries and they fought a war with bright uniforms, tall hats, horses, cannons and a lot of snow. An SF writer has none of that built in and has to do all of that and not bore you. CJ succeeds though I still think a reader who had not read the earlier work will still be at sea, but maybe at least in sight of landfall.
Betrayer plunges us further into the battle to stabilize the Marid province and prevent most of the Atevi world from going up in a civil war that would threaten to destabilize the prospace, pro-human government of the Tabini and his human ally and lead diplomat, Bren Cameron. War among the Atevi is conducted within strict bounds as different groups of the Assassins Guild struggle against each other to carry out or prevent judicially approved Filings of Intent to Kill. The isolated human colony on its island of Mospheira is sitting this one out but in understandable nerves about anything that happens with the planet full of Atevi.
But the Guild itself has been split by the recent coup and counter coup against Tabini and many of the Pretender Murini's Guild fled after Tabini's return, to Marid province finding this nest of internecine family struggles, ripe fruit for the plucking. They insert themselves into existing plots and organize new ones, spreading conflict and unrest and having it blamed on Machigi the existing Marid clan chief, whose fall would allow them to essentially take over the clan from the inside. These Guild renegades would then own their own country.
Ilsidii, Tabini's grandmother and power in her own right and ruthless cunning, believes Machigi is being set up. She had sent Cameron and his small but elite team of Guild guards into the Marid to settle the Deceiver Pauit in the first book and they now proceed to Mashcigi to establish relations with him. Cameron is Mashicigi and the Marid clan's way out of the traps closing in on as the Guild frames Machigi for war crimes and the other Marid lords seek to replace him.
But the fires of conspiracy and rebellion outrace diplomatic efforts. Cameron and his team flee with Mashigi's aid as a Guild-conducted purge of the rebel Guild explodes among conspirators and loyalists alike.
Isilidi and Cajeiri along with Barbara and Toby are besieged in Cameron's home while Cameron must flee afoot through the badlands separating him from home and safety. Action and adventure abound in the second half of this book in sharp contrast to Deceiver.
My chief frustration remains how little we see of the love-interest (in itself the wrong word as the Atevi Jago has no word for love in her language) between Bren and Jago. There is a rich and unexplored field here. Bren and Jago are lovers, something of a scandal in itself. However we spend little time exploring this at all. Why would an Atevi woman begin this association (i.e. fall in love) with what to her is a Halfling? Jago is about eight and half feet tall, her father Bianchi seems to be about ten feet. You would think that the intimacies of relations between a giantess and a human might yield some moments of humor. Beyond that does anyone ever look askance at her for her relationship?
Imagine if you had a perfectly proportioned partner of another color who was still only three feet tall to your six foot or better? Would the world take so little notice or comment? Is she never embarrassed by it? In short, the difficulties inherent in an interracial relationship, much less an interspecies one seem glossed over. It doubtless helps if your girlfriend is a Guild assassin.
Another means of looking at this is the character of Barbara, Cameron's ex-girlfriend and now his brother's (an agent of the human government) girlfriend. Other than a tinge of jealously and contempt, Jago seems to have little reaction to her. How much more interesting could it have been if there were scenes between these two as they struggle to understand each other and Cameron.
Barbara as written is largely an emotional, grasping nuisance who seems somewhere between a stalker and normal jilted female character, but point is, she is a real human woman. She has love, affection, tears, kindness and on an instinctive level is the more rational choice for Bren, or could have been had she been expanded into three dimensions. Does Bren never long for a person who would understand him in a way no alien could? Never long for that comfort?
Don't get me wrong. I am not dissing the character of Jago but rather wishing she had more of one and I had some access to it. She is the powerful ebony princess, always there and always at Cameron's beck and call, for all that he defers to her in all matter of security. She is mysterious and deadly, but to me to the point of abstraction. Who are you, Jago? What do want and long for and why did it take the shape of Cameron? What does mother think of your new boyfriend? Do you ever dream of children? Will you know what to do if Cameron was crying by a graveside? What would you need from him if you stood over your father Bianchi?s grave and he was in there because he died protecting Cameron? All undiscovered country, but one that beckons.
Another area and this may just be the military geek in me, but when CJ does small unit actions, the running and gunning on the Guild level it is well done and plausible. There is a paucity of detail on the larger scale. Machigi for example comments that his people are a naval power. In a world that varies as wildly for levels of technology as does the Atevi one, I have no idea what that means: ironclads with steam power and Dahlgren guns yet still using sales, like the Abraham Lincoln in 20,000 leagues under the sea? Dreadnaughts of the WWI or II era? Or are we talking about armed fishing trawlers? It may seem odd with a space station and a starship above them but most Atevi live in the equivalent of our later 19th and very early 20th century.
Most of the fighting, which happens usually at the distance, is in deadly small unit scuffles between Guild. Occasionally one sees a mob of hunters or other militia. From the military point of view the war is rather confusing and devoid of detail. Do they have tanks, artillery? Do they operate in divisions, battalions or mere companies? The military of all sides again seems sketched rather than drawn.
Betrayer pumps up the action quotient and the fast cutting back and forth between Cameron's point-of-view as he escapes Marid and Cajeiri as he juggles his deadly grandmother and his promise to Cameron to look after Barbara and Toby during the siege are compelling. When young Cajeiri ends up in combat for the first time, you are truly fearful for this brave little boy even if he is the size of Cameron and Toby.
Betrayer is a strong entry in this series, enjoyable in all respects. It features a well done Todd Lockwood cover, though not as good as the Whelan for Deceiver in my view. I would have enjoyed a more leisurely denouement with more scenes between the principals. Of course I also like the ending of the Lord of the Rings, so go figure. It's probably a good thing that the ending leaves you wanting to see and hear a little more but in typical CJ fashion, when we wrap, we wrap damn fast.
Betrayer (Foreigner Universe #12), by C. J. Cherryh on Amazon