Past Reading: CHANUR by CJ Cherryh

Pride of Chanur: 1981
Chanur’s Venture: 1984
The Kif Strike Back: 1985
Chanur’s Homecoming: 1986


(Chanur’s Legacy: 1992)


People, seriously, have you read this series? If not, will you please drop everything and read it immediately so I can stop worrying about your missing out? Now, don’t tell me you have too many novels that just came out this year and no time to read a four (five) book series that’s thirty years old. I don’t want to hear it. Just go pick up these books this minute and read them. You can thank me later.

Good thing I’m not Dictator of the World, huh? Or see what I would be like. Dictatorial!

Anyway, after putting so many books by Cherryh on my lists from the last post, I wanted to mention these more specifically because they’re some of my favorites. I grant you, this is a complicated, politics-heavy series and perhaps not for everyone, but on the other hand, this isn’t one of the Cherryh series that takes a hundred pages to get moving, either. I think it’s a lot more inviting to get into than, say, the FOREIGNER series. Plus not nearly as long, of course.

Now, Cherryh can only fall so far off the radar because a sixty-book backlist plus a continually generated front list will put a net under a writer. Even so, I don’t expect many people are still going to the trouble to find the Chanur series, partly because SF is not as popular as fantasy and partly because the book blogosphere does many good things, but it also channels the lion’s share of the attention to brand new titles.

But it’s worth looking up, and not just because Cherryh writes the best alien species. She’s actually writing about what it means to be human and what it means to be a person, but even in this earlier work of hers she is writing great aliens. The hani would so appeal to modern readers who are interested in gender issues, although I think it helps to know what she based the hani on. They are based on lions. Let me give you a tiny rundown on lion behavior in case you are not totally familiar with that, and then comment about how Cherryh used this in designing her species.

I believe everybody knows that in lions, the males are much bigger than the females and that lionesses do the majority of the hunting, being faster and more agile than males. I trust no one takes this to mean that males don’t or can’t hunt, however, because that is certainly not the case. Now: lions are quite social, as everyone knows. I’m not sure whether everyone knows that males must violently take over a pride of lionesses in order to breed, driving out the resident male or males. When a single male, or more often a set of brothers, take over a pride, they kill any young cubs that aren’t theirs, thus ensuring that the lionesses will come back into season fairly soon so that they can sire cubs of their own. This is not very nice, but then on the other hand, in a bad year, lionesses will drive their own cubs off kills and let them starve, whereas males will often save cubs by letting the young ones feed with them while making the lionesses wait till later. (That part is not relevant to the hani, but I thought I’d mention it.) Male cubs are always driven out by resident males as they grow up.

Okay, now, the hani aren’t lions, of course, but lion behavior and instinct has been used to create this species. Males are big and aggressive and take over territories, which they hold until a younger male kills them in a duel. They are widely regarded as too aggressive and emotion-driven to be trusted with matters of trade or finance or politics; certainly too much so to be allowed to interact with other species. Female hani do all that. All the crew on ships are female, with ships associated with families back home. So we start with that.

Besides the hani – new to space, insular and parochial and concerned mostly with their own local politics, seriously underprepared to deal with broader issues – we have the stsho, who are timid and delicate and ultra-civilized and switch sexes (and personalities) in ways that other species find weird and unpredictable. Then we have the mahendo’sat, who are more primate-like and very, very politically manipulative. Both of those species have been in space a lot longer than the hani. Plus, we have the kif, who are quite vicious in their normal interactions with each other, never mind with other species. And finally, we have a whole slew of methane-breathers, whom no one understands but who add complexities around the edges.

Then we toss just one human into this mix. We never, ever get his pov, btw, so Cherryh is not using him to provide her readers with someone to identify with. Pyanfar Chanur is human enough in her attitudes and thoughts to play that role, which is one way (not the only way) Cherryh is playing with ideas about what it means to be human.

There had been something loose about the station dock all morning, skulking in amongst the gantries and the lines and the canisters which were waiting to be moved, luring wherever shadows fell among the rampway accesses of the many ships at dock at Meetpoint. It was pale, naked, starved-looking in what fleeting glimpse anyone on The Pride of Chanur had of it. Evidently no one had reported it to station authorities, or did The Pride. Involving oneself in others’ concerns at Meetpoint Station , where several species came to trade and provision, was ill-advised – at least until one was personally bothered. Whatever it as, it was bipedal, brachiate, and quick at making itself unseen. It had surely gotten away from someone, and likeliest were the kif, who had a thieving finger in everything and were not above kidnapping. Or it might be some large, bizarre animal; the mahendo’sat were inclined to the keeping and trade of strange pets, and Station had been displeased with them in that respect on more than one occasion. So far it had done nothing. Stolen nothing. No one wanted to get involved in question and answer between original owners and station authorities; and so far no official statement had come down from those station authorities and no notice of its loss had been posted by any ship, which itself argued that a wise person should not ask questions. The crew reported it only to the captain and chased it, twice, from The Pride’s loading area. Then the crew got to work on necessary duties, having settled the annoyance to their satisfaction.

It was the last matter on the mind of the noble, the distinguished captain Pyanfar Chanur, who was setting out down her own rampway for the docks. She was hani, this captain, splendidly maned and bearded in red-gold, which reached in silken curls to the middle of her bare, sleek-pelted chest, and she was dressed as befitted a hani of captain’s rank, blousing scarlet breeches tucked up at her waist with a broad gold belt, with silk cords of every shade of red and orange wrapping that about, each knotted cord with a pendant jewel on its dangling end. Gold finished the breeches at her knees. Gold filigree was her armlet. And a row of fine gold rings and a large pendant pearl decorated the tufted sweep of her left ear. She strode down her own rampway in the security of ownership – still high-blooded from a quarrel with her niece – and yelled and bared claws as the intruder came bearing down on her.

It was the kif, incidentally, though kidnapping is not exactly the term. I mean, yes, but it’s all political and complicated, and Tully is not important to the kif as a person. Not that anybody is really important to the kif as a person; they’re quite sociopathic by human standards. They certainly want him back, though, and so things happen, and then it all snowballs, and eventually we get a real avalanche of events tearing along, with the whole hani world at risk and Pyanfar and her crew right at the center, trying to keep their people from being buried in the rubble, to extend the metaphor.

The first book is self-contained, pretty impressive for a book that’s got this much going on and is only just over 200 pages. But really, the first four books form one story; if you pick up the second you will find that the first feeds right into it. All four combined are not that long, btw; the first is, as I said, just a bit over 200 pages; the second only 180, the third 250, and the fourth 330 as Cherryh finishes it all off. So even four put together are not such a huge commitment.

The last book, though, steps forward a generation, picks up Pyanfar’s niece (you know, the one she was quarreling with above?) as the main character, and deals with gender from the other direction: the first (well, pretty much the first) male hani crewmember, and how that works out given all the prejudice against male hani. I loved LEGACY, in fact. I loved how Cherryh finally developed the stsho, rather neglected in the first quadrilogy, and I liked seeing how Hilfy got her life together, and yes, I am very fond of Hallan, the young male hani.

So: CHANUR — one of the works that should be considered essential SF, and another argument against Michael Underwood’s contention (last post) that older works should be ignored in favor of “more relevant” current titles. This series is another that isn’t going to be outdate for a long, long time.

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7 thoughts on “Past Reading: CHANUR by CJ Cherryh”

  1. I was going to start my Robin Hobb reread next, in preparation for Fool’s Assassin, but I may have to change my plans…

  2. If you just look at Pride, it’s very self-contained: I actually think of the series as 1 -3 – 1 instead of 4 – 1. Partly, no doubt, because I read the first one at least a couple of years before moving on.

    If I remember correctly, this is the series that persuaded me Cherryh really belongs somewhere at the top of the field.

  3. I prefer fantasy to science fiction, but I have read all of the Chanur books and they’re great. The interplay between the different species is really well done.

  4. This series is one of the best – ever. I’ve repeatedly been amazed at Cherryh’s ability to pack so much fun with so much complexity.

  5. Mary Beth, if you do try this series, I hope you’ll let us know what you think!

    Craig, you’re right, it is pretty much a 1-3-1 pattern. The middle three definitely constitute one story.

    Cheryl, Hélène, thanks for commenting! That should help persuade others to try this series.

  6. Hmm, I always thought of them as action-packed, but it’s true there’s a lot of interspecies and hani politics underlying all the fast manoeuvering and running hither and yon in spaceships and on stations.
    I loved this series, and am very glad to find it as ebooks as my paperbacks were getting a bit fragile. It’s being re-issued as ebooks this year: books 1 (standalone), 2 and 3 (first 2/3rds of the trilogy), and 5 (the sequel) are out already, and I expect the final book of the trilogy will follow before long.
    If you’re planning on reading it as ebooks, I’d start with book 1 as soon as you can fit it in (that gives you a good chance to see if you’d like them all), but then hold off on starting the trilogy until the final book (4) is available. The push towards the end gets so frantic and exciting, I’d hate to have to wait at that point before getting on towards the resolution. The separate parts of the trilogy do not really end at a point of (temporary) closure; in the story-arc sense it feels to me more like one story in three volumes, than a trilogy with three discrete arcs.
    I have no idea why the (e-)publisher decided to bring out the first three books, and then a few months later book 5, and then (still pending) book 4, instead of keeping the trilogy together – maybe production problems? I do find it a bit frustrating as seeing them as ebooks made me want to reread them, and now I have to wait…

    Luckily finding your books and reading your blog have already given me some more books to add to the to-be-read pile, by other authors I didn’t know yet as well as some of your own. I read The Floating Islands recently, which I liked a lot, so I’ve been gathering some more of your books to read, as well as finding this blog as a result of looking for more. Thank you, both for the lovely book (I rather hoped there might be more in this world) and the books I’ve still to read, and for this blog which gives so many good ideas and seems like a conversation I’ll enjoy keeping up with.

  7. Hanneke, thanks for the tip about ebook availability. I should have checked on that, but didn’t think of it. I’m sure you’re right about some kind of production error screwing up the release of the 4th book, since otherwise that would be simply nuts. What a pain, and hopefully they’ll sort that out soon. Personally, if it were me, I’d start the series, buy the 4th as a used book if necessary, and then get the ebook when it’s available.

    And! Thanks so much for letting me know you enjoyed ISLANDS. I will just say that there will indeed be a sequel eventually, but at the moment Random House prefers standalones from me rather than sequels.

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