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The Pride of Chanur by C.J. Cherryh
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The Pride of Chanur is one of the most beloved books in the canon of perennial fan-favorite author C. J. Cherryh, a writer whose stock among the SF reading public is so high she's regarded as something like a conquering hero. Her stories have a great deal of appeal, but I'm not terribly enthusiastic about her actual writing in this book. I'll elaborate shortly.

Pride is pure space opera of the old school, embellished with Cherryh's imaginative trademark: an elaborate interstellar culture populated by more bizarre and exotic aliens than the Mos Eisley cantina sees on a busy Friday night when the band is really cooking. The story is set in the Compact, a loose confederacy of alien races bound by trade. Pyanfar Chanur is the lionine hani captain of the titular vessel. Docked at Meetpoint Station, a central trading post in neutral space, Pyanfar's routine is interrupted by the unexpected appearance of Tully, an alien belonging to a heretofore unknown species: human.

Tully is escaping the kif, a treacherous species given to thievery and warlike behavior. When Pyanfar grants this strange new alien asylum aboard her vessel, she opens up a can of worms that threatens to destabilize the Compact itself. The devilish kif, who see the humans as a new species outside the Compact that they can exploit with impunity, will stop at nothing to get Tully back. And when it becomes clear that Pyanfar — out of, what else, pride — isn't going to capitulate to their demands like a tame kitten, the claws come out. Add to this the fact that Pyanfar must deal with intrigues and hostility on the part of her fellow hani, and, well, life could be better.

The early chapters of the book are its best. Tully's arrival aboard the Pride is a brilliant spoof on the classic "there's something on board the ship!" trope popularized by films ranging from Alien all the way back to low-budget grade-Z cheapies like The Green Slime and It! The Terror from Beyond Space. At the time of this book's release, the role-reversal of having the human as the lone, frightened alien was still pretty novel. Also, for better or for worse, Cherryh here ushered in a fad for cat aliens that proved remarkably influential and demonstrated pretty conclusively that in SF — which can count an inordinate number of cat fanciers among its fan base — as in all things, the key to success is "Know Your Audience!" Then again, a cynic might call this "pandering."

In any event, following its compelling opening, the novel's midsection settles into a bit of tedium. Cherryh's prose style, to put it politely, is a matter of taste, and it doesn't sit well with mine. It feels rushed and frenetic, but in a way that hinders the book's pacing and accessibility rather than enhancing it. She sometimes favors choppily constructed sentences that read as though she wrote the book onto a shorthand pad, and then handed it to a typist to transcribe back into actual English. Case in point...

The lift down the corridor hummed and opened doors: Pyanfar heard that and worked her way out of a finished job, stood up and wiped her hands and straightened her mane — soft quick footfalls in the corridor.

Good grief, Ms. Cherryh, you've got four sentences there at least. Why not write them as such instead of krazy-gluing them together into one ersatz big sentence with comma splices, colons, and em dashes? It's just messy, and the book is annoyingly full of it. How's this instead?

The lift down the corridor hummed and its doors opened. Pyanfar heard it as she finished her work. She stood, wiped her hands and straightened her mane. Soft quick footfalls came down the corridor.

Okay, so now people are going to bombard me with angry e-mails telling me what a presumptuous prat I am for giving C. J. Cherryh writing tips. Sure me, but I think that clear, uncluttered prose that communicates ideas succinctly, blessedly unburdened by "style," is the kind of writing that holds up best over the years. This may well be just a matter of taste. Some readers may be entirely untroubled by it, and if you're one of them, feel free to ignore this little rant of mine and notch the rating higher. But — call me a heretic — crummy prose passing itself off as style is still crummy prose.

Otherwise, I found much in the story to admire. I was fascinated by how Cherryh resisted formula and kept Tully in the background for most of the tale. Pyanfar and her crew are the focus of the story, whereas in most tales pitting a solitary human against a cast of exotic aliens, the human character would automatically become the day-saving hero. (Think Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes.) The Compact is also interesting. I wasn't sure I believed it fully at first. Particularly with a race of brigands like the kif at large, it seems such a loosely governed entity would fall like a house of cards to the the first act of organized hostility. But Cherryh presents some interesting ways in which the Compact checks-and-balances itself, all the while making it plain that indeed, plenty of simmering distrust and hostility is lurking just under the fragile facade of cooperation. And Tully is the X factor that brings it all bursting out.

The climax is fast paced and entertaining, and the story impresses in how it establishes a solid foundation for an ongoing series. If only I were a bigger fan of Cherryh the writer, I'd be more blown away by Cherryh the storyteller.

The first three of the five Chanur novels are currently in print from DAW in an omnibus edition titled The Chanur Saga. In the back there's an appendix detailing the Compact and its different races, particularly the hani and their ritualistic society. I suggest you read it first, because it explains some key things a lot more clearly than the narrative does.

Followed by Chanur's Venture.