At the beginning of this book, the starship Phoenix accidentally ends up lost in space, far away from its original destination and anywhere else familiar to its human crew. Approximately 150 years later (I think), it comes across the atevi homeworld. First contact with the atevi is nerve-wracking but appears to go well until a cultural misunderstanding of some sort results in a war that almost wipes the human colonists out. A treaty is established that allows the human colonists to live on a single island, Mospheira, in exchange for sharing information about their more advanced technology via a paidhi, an interpreter and the sole human allowed to live among the atevi.
Approximately 200 years later, we are in the book's present. Bren Cameron is the current paidhi. He thinks he had a good handle on his job and a good relationship with Tabini, the aiji (leader) most closely associated with the human colonists, until he's attacked by an assassin. While assassination is an accepted part of atevi culture, this situation is unheard of for a human paidhi. As Bren tries to figure out what's going on and where he went wrong, he finds himself becoming increasingly isolated, prevented from contacting Mospheira and unsure of who he can trust among the atevi.
The beginning of this book was a little awkward – I'm still not sure that the Book One (the Phoenix becoming lost) and Book Two (the initial colonization of the atevi homeworld) sections were really necessary at this point in the series. Just as I found myself becoming intrigued by Taylor's abilities as a pilot, for example, the book jumped to a point a couple hundred years later. I can't believe I'm saying this, but a quickie infodump might have been less distracting.
Once I realized that Book Three was going to be the bulk of the story (page 65 to the end), I was able to settle in and enjoy myself more. The political situation intrigued me. As far as I could tell, things didn't look good for the human colonists in the long run. The atevi had kept them around for their superior technology, but that didn't mean the atevi lacked inventiveness and creativity of their own. After two hundred years the humans had given the atevi almost everything they knew, and the atevi had come up with technological innovations of their own. What would happen when the atevi decided they didn't need humans anymore?
If I understood things correctly, the more pessimistic humans hoped to encourage the atevi to adopt the sort of technology that would make space travel possible – and therefore also make it possible for humans to escape the planet. The more optimistic humans wanted to establish positive and mutually beneficial associations with the atevi, the closest the atevi could come to understanding the human concept of “liking” someone.
Bren was in the optimists' camp. I have to say, I wasn't very impressed with him. The description of Invader, the next book in the series, calls him a “brilliant, young paidhi,” but all I saw was someone who constantly doubted himself and his interpretations of atevi language and behavior and who reacted extremely badly to stress. He engaged several of the atevi around him in conversations he knew they wouldn't understand and used words that he knew would disturb them.
I grew to loathe his use of the word “like.” He “liked” Tabini, Jago, Banichi, and Ilisidi. He wanted several of these atevi to “like” him back. Unfortunately, the closest thing the atevi had to a word for “like” was a word used to describe how one feels about food or drink. I found myself wondering why it didn't occur to Bren that the concept of man'chi, loyalty to an association or leader, might be closer to what he was looking for than the word for “like” that he kept using. One particularly lengthy conversation with Banichi made me cringe. All I can say is that Bren was very lucky that the atevi he most offended were also the ones who'd known him the longest and who he was closest to. I realize that Bren was young, 26 years old, had been on the job for only four years, and hadn't received much help or advice from his predecessor, but he was so bad at his job sometimes that it was almost painful.
That said, there were lots of times when he did quite well. I enjoyed his cautious conversations with Ilisidi and other atevi he was less familiar with, and the scenes in which he learned to ride mecheita were fun. Up to a certain point, I enjoyed his efforts to try to figure out what was going on without offending his atevi hosts or losing what few allies he might still have. Unfortunately, I felt that Cherryh dragged the mystery on a little too long. While I enjoyed the book's slower pace at first, I eventually became impatient with the number of times Bren's requests for information were met with “Everything's fine, nadi.”
My frustrations with Bren and the story's slowness aside, I did enjoy this book and felt it was significantly less confusing than the one other book by Cherryh I had read, The Pride of Chanur. I plan to continue on with this series and have, in fact, ordered copies of the next two books so that I can at least read the entire first arc.
At the end of the book there's a pronunciation guide and a glossary. I didn't pay too much attention to the pronunciation guide, beyond noting how to correctly pronounce "Jago," and even then I still kept saying her name wrong in my head. The glossary was of much greater interest to me. I flipped to it a lot.
- The Color of Distance (book) by Amy Thomson - I haven't read this. The description says that the main character is the sole survivor of a team of surveyors marooned on an alien planet. The human main character's efforts to live with the amphibian natives might touch on some of the same issues Bren had to deal with while trying to understand and be understood by the atevi, as well as his realization that he was no longer comfortable with his own species.
- This Alien Shore (book) by C.S. Friedman - I haven't read this, but reviews mention that it's another sci-fi novel that deals with what it means to be human, something Cherryh touched on in Foreigner.
- Happy Snak (e-book) by Nicole Kimberling - Last I heard, this book's publisher, Samhain Publishing, won't be around for much longer. Still, it's a good one for those who'd like something that combines mystery and a first contact situation. It's a standalone book with an overall tone that's lighter and fluffier than Foreigner, but it might still work for those who'd like another story with lots of alien culture details. I've written about this book.
- Alien Emergencies (e-book) by James White - White's writing is nowhere near as good as Cherryh's, with a somewhat grating tendency towards word-for-word repetition, but this omnibus volume or one of the other works in the Sector General series may still work for those looking for more books with a heavy reliance on alien culture details. I've written about this book.
- The Goblin Emperor (e-book) by Katherine Addison - Maybe it's because I was listening to this while reading Foreigner, but I couldn't help but notice how similar they were in some respects. Both books revel in made-up languages and include main characters who find themselves in dangerous situations. Both Bren and Maia must rely on their political and diplomatic skills while figuring out who they can trust. I've written about this book.