Where to start with CJ Cherryh

Now, now, listen, I never for a moment meant to suggest that anybody should start with CJ Cherryh by opening up any volume of the FOREIGNER series. No no no. That is a terrible idea, or at least terrible-ish. I think there are way better places to start. So, Kim and everybody else who finds it difficult to tell where to start with an author who has at last count about one zillion titles out there:

I see many of you suggest other non-Foreigner books to start with. I’m sure we won’t all agree, and in fact I know that for sure cause I already disagree with some of you:

Downbelow Station — Yes, it won the Hugo. No, it is a bad place to start. The cast of thousands thing that Mike mentions is the kicker. I think that makes it a tough book to get into for many people. I read it and I even enjoyed it, but it isn’t one of Cherryh’s that I go back to over and over. I do go back over and over to:

CYTEEN. Sure, you already understand the universe if you’ve read other related books such as Downbelow Station, but nevertheless CYTEEN stands alone perfectly well. Granted, when I re-read it, I skim lightly over the early part and start to really read it when Young Ari appears. So I would suggest that a reader be prepared to give the book some time to develop. Nevertheless, this is a tremendously effective, powerful story. New to Cherryh? If you’re into hard sociological SF, tackle CYTEEN and I hope you won’t be disappointed.

I did like Merchanter’s Luck a lot, but imo it seems a minor work compared to CYTEEN.

Rusalka trilogy — no no no. Not to say that some readers won’t agree with Elaine T’s daughter, who found this a good entry, but I loathed this trilogy and eventually gave it away. It is one of the few Cherryh works that absolutely does not work for me.

FORTRESS IN THE EYE OF TIME — yes yes yes. There are four books in the series, but this first one stands alone. In my opinion, if you are into fantasy rather than SF, this is one of Cherryh’s strongest fantasies. If you love it, great, read the next couple. I would personally suggest giving the last book in this world a miss. Don’t blame me if you read it and kinda wish you hadn’t.


Other places to start with CJC:

CHANUR series — As long as a reader likes SF, then I agree with the lot of you, this is an excellent series. Go for it! It doesn’t even have 200 pages of intro before the story really starts. This is one where I really, really enjoyed the last book in the world, even though it is not really part of the series but rather a standalone companion book.

CUCKOO’S EGG — this short little SF novel is perfect in every way. Not sure you want to commit to a weighty tome or a series? Grab this one. It is out of print and not available in ebook form, but used copies are available for pennies, so pick one up and introduce yourself to Cherryh.

The same goes for “The Scapegoat,” a novella in ALIEN STARS, which is a deeply affecting story. If you want to try Cherryh with shorter works, or shoot, if you’ve just never seen a copy of this novella — do yourself a favor and pick up the anthology. Maybe you’ll even like the other stories in it, I dunno, I’ve forgotten them all, but “The Scapegoat” is absolutely beautiful.

Not a single one of those was my actual intro to Cherryh. I think that might have been Arafel’s Saga or maybe the Mri trilogy. But looking over my massive CJC collection, honestly, the above are the ones I would particularly point out as good starting places if Cherryh is new to you.

You may all now argue in the comments…

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21 thoughts on “Where to start with CJ Cherryh”

  1. I’ve only read a few of her books, but why not start with some of Cherryh’s earliest works? The Faded Sun trilogy and Morgaine books contain great characters and a gripping narrative.

  2. Hah, I actually did start with FOREIGNER and have toddled on quite happily from there. :) But I suspect you’re right & there are other, better places to begin.

  3. I agree that Downbelow Station is a tough entry point. But I might go so far as to tell someone to try it first, and then try Cyteen or The Pride of Chanur if they bounce off it. Because it’s so good for setting up the world: the Company Wars, the rarity and importance of Earthlike worlds, the Mazianni, Norway, Earth’s somnolent involvement, merchant culture vs. station culture, Pell, the hisa. And looming out in most of the Beyond, Union, a scary empire operating via legions of tank-grown brainwashed slaves, engaged in total war with the protagonists.

    I don’t reread it often, but the events of the book wind up informing everything else in that universe. (Even the Chanur books– Earth’s contact with the Compact come from its second effort at interstellar exploration in the direction away from the complications it sowed during the sublight era. Into an even more complicated and unstable situation– oops.)

    It isn’t necessary— the books all stand alone. But I find it richer to see the development of history and culture through the whole interconnected web. In particular, coming to Cyteen, after DS and learning just what Union thinks it’s doing and where it’s coming from politically and socially is fascinating.

    None of which changes the fact that DS isn’t as welcoming an entry point as it could be, of course. But still, at least for anyone who loves either history or big, complex, interconnected worlds, I’d suggest at least giving it a shot first.

  4. The one thing I’d note about CUCKOO’S EGG is that it’s a story about a child growing up in which the events are mostly very small-scale. Now, you particularly love bildungsromans, and I doubt you’re the only one — but if the potential reader is an SF fan who likes adventure stories with adventurey things happening, THE PRIDE OF CHANUR is a better choice.

    Both of them showcase alien viewpoints, which is probably Cherryh’s single strongest area as an SF writer and definitely a thing to stress. Just to state the obvious.

  5. Okay, okay, granted, yes, Cuckoo’s Egg is a small-scale intimate story. I have a hard time remembering that some strange people might not love that.

    All right, Mike, with that warning, sure. But for me it would work better to deepen the background of the universe after getting hooked by something with fewer pov protagonists.

    Maureen, wow. That’s diving right in at the deep end for sure.

    Robert, I love the Faded Sun and Morgaine, but I think CJC improved as a writer as she went on. On the other hand, it’s true *I* fell in love with CJC with those exact books.

  6. I definitely agree with Cuckoo’s Egg, although I am always sad there’s no sequel. I find Finity’s End and Tripoint are the Alliance-Union books that stand alone and that I come back to the most. Rachel’s comment about small scale is interesting, because I think all three have that in common.

    For fantasy, Rider’s at the Gate – again small scale – or Hammerfall, which is more epic.

  7. Edit above comment: ok, Hammerfall is not really fantasy, but most of the book seems like fantasy!

  8. It’s hard to remember, but I think the first Cherryh book I read was Fortress in the Eye of Time. For the Foreigner series, I also started with Foreigner and just went in order from there. I do think the beginning of the series is harder to enjoy because Bren (and the reader) doesn’t really understand the chain of events that’s been set in motion and why the atevi are behaving the way they are and giving him such a hard time. But on the other hand, maybe it does contribute to establishing their motivations as, well, alien. Or at least inscrutable and unpredictable.

    I had trouble with Downbelow Station, so maybe I will give Cyteen a try.

    As an aside, personally, I really liked Fortress of Ice, but I have to admit it’s almost entirely due to the scene where Emuin comes across the boys taking shelter from a blizzard. It’s just such a fantastic portrayal of a wizard.

  9. Cuckoo’s Egg is perfect as it stands. So I don’t actually want a sequel. Well, I do. But I don’t. Anyway, if I were CJC, I wouldn’t have written one.

    I totally agree that Hammerfall feels like fantasy — though the sequel absolutely does not. They actually feel as though they are in entirely different universes, though of course they aren’t. I greatly prefer Hammerfall to Forge of Heaven — never connected to the protagonists in the latter and I missed the protag from the former. I mean, I know we get to see him, but just in snippets.

    Well, I’m glad some readers liked Fortress of Ice. I’m tempted to flip through the book now just to look for the scene with the blizzard.

    I love love love Cyteen. And hey, maybe you’ll find you really enjoy the first part, before Ari senior dies and Ari Junior is born.

  10. This is the teen who first read Eye of Time as a standalone and then returned to Cherryh a few years later with Rusalka.
    I personally find that Fortress of Ice reads like bad fanfiction written by someone who didn’t understand the world building at all, anything that makes the world work, and acquired their entire knowledge of the world from internet osmosis. About the only thing I like in it is the bit where Elfwyn meets Tristen, who is not what he expected.

  11. Wow, Elaine, that’s more emphatic than I would have been. I didn’t care for Fortress of Ice, but I wouldn’t have put it quite that way. I almost want to re-read it now just to see what I think. But the last time I tried to re-read it, I didn’t get very far, so maybe not.

  12. My favorite is 40,000 in Gehenna , though I wouldn’t recommend beginning there. I’d start with Merchanter’s Luck.

  13. That was the Teen, not me. However she has expressed that opinion and I get it. I remember that sense of ‘this isn’t right” as I read ICE. She reads a lot of fanfiction, too, so I can understand coming up with the comparison.

    I did like the part where the kid meets Tristen – the outside POV on Tristen after he has come into his own isn’t something we get in the other four.

    The comment above remarking on Emuin’s helping the kids during the blizzard/weird magical icy conditions as being a perfect portrait of a wizard isn’t something I’d thought of, but it’s true. He’s helpful, cranky, not terribly informative, and seems dangerous as well as quirkily approachable. My conception of a wizardous person. So, two things to like about ICE.

    I started CJC with FADED SUN, but I’ve got to say that when I pull away and look at the Mri
    they’re candidates for the Darwin award.

    I did like HAMMERFALL but prefer the sequel, partly for the fashionistas getting to play an important role. That seems so un-CJCish.

  14. Thank you!

    You’re all so passionate about these books; it’s clear this is a writer I’m going to have to try. Kind of exciting to know there are so many universes out there to discover!

    Making me think a trip to the used bookstore is in order . . .

  15. The scene with Emuin and the boys in the blizzard is in chapter 9iii, if anyone wants to skip the rest of the book. :)

  16. I started with Foreigner – that picture of Bren, Banichi and Jago hooked me in and I’ve continued reading the series. Also, Downbelow Station was my first Alliance Union read, it provided the relevant perspectives in this ‘verse and prepared me for Cyteen and its sequel, Regenesis (both of which I love.) Also, Fortress of Ice? I like the book because it is essentially about brothers. Granted the earlier books were better in terms of the wizardry and the good vs evil conflict, but Ice has its own charm.

  17. Ah, okay, sorry, now I see the Teen did identify herself but I was slow and didn’t pick up on it. Listen, if you’re in an analytical mood, what appealed to you about Rusalka? I hated everything about the first book, waded painfully through the second, and owned the third for years before admitting I was never going to read it — so as a result I don’t remember the trilogy all that well.

    Kim, good luck with the used book store, and really, do see if you can find a copy of Alien Stars so you can read “The Scapegoat.” I found that in a used bookstore years ago and that may be a not-bad place to look for a copy.

    Phineas, thanks for pointing to the blizzard scene, that is indeed very helpful.

    Kootch, so that’s two of you who have actually started with the Foreigner series! I wouldn’t have recommended it . . . . obviously . . . but hey, obviously that can work better than I’d have expected. Well, I remind myself I would probably have loved it even if it were the first of CJCs books I’d read. But I wonder if I’d have realized she often does take a long time to get rolling and so it’s not unexpected that the whole first book is basically an intro.

  18. I’m taking dictation this time, from The Teen:

    First, I just like the characters. I like the way that Eveshka the Rusalka is handled, and I like Babi ( the yard thing). I like the way the magic is handled. I like the way that in the second book we get a flash of what the horses are thinking. I’ve been known to squeal excitedly “Horse POV” and am capable of quoting them off the top of my head. I like the idea of the wizards’ hearts and the way they give them away (or don’t) and what the consequences are. I like Pyter’s sense of sarcasm, no matter how dire the situation and the way he always lands on his feet. I like the fact that the storyline is so complicated that I can head off an attack of depression by pulling out one of those books. I like the leshys. I’m not so fond of Evashka, having developed an irrationality scale based on her as the worst ever, but I like the way she’s handled. I like the gradual evolution of Hwiur from enigmatic magical creature on nobody’s side but its own, to an outright enemy and sinister figure. And I like the same evolution in reverse with Kavi, whom I find an extremely interesting character. I like the difference between wizardry and magic. And the thought that the wizards are always so careful – that detail of how careful they need to be ALL THE TIME. I like how the consequences of the very beginning of the first book turn up in the 3rd book with Nadya. I like the complexity of the story. (I’ve mentioned I like the horses, right?) I like the way Yvegenie is handled, and I’ve to say that is the neatest solution to a love triangle I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t realize that until I was on my fifteenth reread. The fact that one of them was dead and the love triangle was the least of their problems after all. I like the fact that CJC rewrote the third book much clearer, but I already liked the trilogy before that.

    I like the trust between Pyter and Sasha and later between Pyter and Kavi, I like those trusts in general. I like little details such as when Yvgenie is telling Illyana stories his nurse told him of wizards hiding their hearts in acorns she thinks ‘an acorn is a very dangerous place, but maybe one could.” I like way illwishing comes back to haunt them, especially when Eveshka does it. And that giving in to fear is shown to be the wrong way to deal with magic. I like it when they hit Hwiur with lightning. I like the very opinionated horses. I like the concept of a wizard who becomes a sorcerer usually becoming ruled by the magic they’re calling on. I like the implied consequences of giving one’s heart to a magical creature. I like Sasha for being sweet and saying ‘excuse me.” and being so very kind to the horse. Nadya decides he’s not evil because of that. I like that detail. I like the reactions when the horses turn up. I like when Pyter tells the wizards who are warring silently can’t they just say what they mean instead of wishing at him. I like the way Babi stayed out of Eveshka’s way when she was pregnant, he has good sense. I like the way Babi gets very very jealous when the horse turns up and has to be coaxed into talking to Pyter again and being visible. ANd the way when Pyter swears around the leshys one too many times, they drop a branch on his head. And the way he understands magic than the wizards, even though he can’t do any. I like the Owl/Snake exchanges between Pyter and Kavi. And when Sasha FINALLY casts off Uulamet’s memory, because that scene is so quietly awesome in a Sasha way.
    Finally, I like the way they can’t lie in magic.

    End dictation. I’ll add on my own that it strikes me as a first pass at tackling the issues she tackled again in Fortress and I find the similarities and contrasts intriguing.

  19. Thank you for your comments, Teen! Shoot, now I aaaalmost want to try this trilogy again, just for the horses, which I don’t remember at all. Also because of your line about trust — a very important theme for me and one I almost always love. From what I gather from the essay on the Rusalka trilogy in The Cherryh Odyssey, this is indeed an extremely complicated trilogy, so I can see that.

    I hated the way the magic worked and the way the wizards needed to be careful ALL THE TIME. It makes me tired just to think of having to live that way.

    And if someone asks me whether they should try this trilogy, rather than saying NO automatically, I’ll point to this comment.

  20. I started reading Cherryh in the mid 80’s. I was given a box of random used books and buried in it was “The Kif Strikes Back”. I still remember my excitement and utter fascination. Even though I had no idea what was going on I was still enthralled. I immediately started searching bookstores for the other books in the series. I have been a huge fan ever since. Have read most series and wait impatiently every year for a new Foreigner book. And, always hoping for a new Alliance Universe book I was thrilled to read “Alliance Rising”, in spite of it’s minor flaws. But the Compact series will always be my favorite, I have reread it almost annually since first discovering it. Pyanfar remains my favorite character of any book I’ve ever read.

  21. Jane, the Chanur series is so good! I was actually especially pleased with the connected Hilfy book — I had my doubts about Hilfy as the main character (one main character) instead of Pyanfar, but then I wound up loving that book so much! Not as intense as the original series, but really just as good.

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