The first in an SF trilogy. I got it through BookMooch.

Publication year: 1978
Page count: 252
Format: print
Publisher: Daw

Niun is a young man in a warrior race called the mri. The mri hire themselves to another species, the regul, who are not violent. The mri guard regul space ships and battle against each other when the regul want it. However, for the past forty years, the mri and the regul have fought against the humans. During it, a hundred thousand mri has died and they are on the brink of extinction. The mri train with hand-to-hand weapons and want to duel. The humans use weapons of mass destruction.

The humans and regul have signed a treaty at the start of the story. The mri see this as surrender and are not pleased. Niun is especially depressed: he’s the last of the warrior cast Kel on the planet Kesrith and he’s been looking forward to getting his own share of glory in war. The leader of mri on Keshrith, the she’pan, has kept Niun beside her for far longer than is usual, and Niun resents the old she’pan for it. Except for Niun’s truesister Melein, who was told to join the Sen caste, all other mri on Kesrith are old people.

At the same time, two humans are on their way to Kesrith to prepare for the human colony that is going to be built there. They are on a regul ship and under strict orders to stay in the cabin except for short periods of time. Stavros is the leader of the small group; he’s an old and respected diplomat and he’s going to be the new colony’s governor. Sten Duncan is Stavros’ young aide and the other POV character. Stavros is spending his time trying to get the hang of the regul language while Duncan is going slowly mad with the isolation and boredom.

Unfortunately for the mri, the regul haven’t told them that their current home world Kesrith is going to be given to the humans.

The regul and mri both have distinct cultures and mindsets. Even though the mri have served the regul for over two thousand years, neither understand the other and they also loath each other. The mri have three castes; the Kel who are the warriors, the Sen, who are the scholars and leaders, and the Kath who are the gentle life-bearers (and only briefly seen in this book). Men can become either Kel or Sen, but women can belong into any of the castes. They have rigid boundaries: the Kel aren’t literate and they must obey the Sen without question or thought. The Sen are the leader, the decision makers, and the keepers of knowledge. They are forbidden to even touch weapons and have to remain chaste. The regul call the San religious leaders, but I didn’t think of the mri as religious. There was a brief mention of multiple gods but nothing else. The She’pan also called the Mother and all the warriors of her clan are her ritual husbands. The warriors are free to have sex with any Keth or Kel.

The regul have a completely different social structure. They respect age and the elders are in charge. The elders can even kill younglings if they want to; the younglings are certainly verbally abused almost at every turn. The regul don’t have biological sexes until they mature and they live for hundreds of years. They also find lying to be extremely distasteful and never forget anything. They find humans baffling. 🙂 The elders are described as frail; they move around on machines and make the younglings do as much work as possible. (They reminded me of the Hutt even though I know that they have legs and are capable of walking, although slowly.)

Even tough the book centers on a warrior caste and is set in an aftermath of war, there’s little violence in the book. Most of the struggle is against the hostile planet. Kesrith’s atmosphere is acidic but barely breathable, it has hostile creatures, and boiling mud and water. At least the parts that we see seem to be mostly sand, mud, and rock. For such an unforgiving planet, the local wildlife is pretty large. Dusei are one of the local animal-like creatures. They seem to have some empathic talent and are able to form a bond with the mri, but only if the individual dus wants to. Niun doesn’t have a dus of his own and that just adds to his misery and self-doubts.

The plot doesn’t really start until near the end. However, I was fascinated with the cultures, so I didn’t really mind. At the start Niun is pretty self-centered and selfish in his concerns. He has a tendency to pity himself and think that he’s worthless. He had close relationship with his sister but that ended when she became a Sen, so Niun has been quite lonely among the old mri. Still, when the plot does start, it does so with a bang. Also, there’s no resolution at the end.

Once again, Cherryh has a very… interesting cover. That’s probably Melein, who is forbidden to even touch weapons. And that outfit is very, er, movie-like instead of being some actual use in a desert-like environment. Still, I guess it could have been much worse, too. The trilogy cover is pretty awesome, though.