This is another stand-alone SF.
Publication year: 1980
Page count: 250 (The Deep Beyond omnibus)
In typical Cherryh style, the reader is thrown in with little explanation and is expected to deduce things on the fly.
Serpent’s Reach is set in an isolated region of space. The whole constellation is forbidden for outsider humans to settle and they’re only allowed to visit one planet. The reason is the local alien lifeform which is considered very unpredictable. The Majat, as they are called, are an insectoid hive mind species which at first can’t even understand the concept of individuality. Before the constellation was quarantined a group of humans settled there: humans and their genetically engineered slaves, the azi. By the time of this book, the humans have divided into two further groups: the House humans and what they call the Betas. The House humans (called Kontrin) are virtually immortal and possess limitless funds. They rule over everyone else and work with the Majat. They also sell azi to the Majat.
Raen is a young woman in the House of Meth-Maren, a high born human looking forward to a rigid life of duty. Then her entire House is slaughtered but other humans and Majat working together. She’s the only one to escape and she runs to the nearest Majat hive. The Blue Majat Queen agrees to help her and she wants revenge. She and the Blue hive warriors manage to attack Raen’s former home and kill all the invaders there. However, Raen is captured and the hive slaughtered.
Raen is brought before the Kontrin council. Many want to kill her too, but the two eldest Kontrin (Lian and Moth) protect her and just banish her. Raen still has her funds and is allowed to travel freely in Serpent’s Reach. She wanders seemly aimlessly for years, surviving assassination attempts and burning with the need for more revenge. When we see her again, she’s on transport to the corner planet Istra which is the only planet where outsiders are allowed to come. And she has a plan.
The book has several point-of-view characters and none of them are particularly sympathetic. Most of them are only interested in their plots and schemes; the rest are people caught up in them. Raen is driven but near the end she starts to have sympathy towards the people she’s trampling under – and even saves a large group of azi from a horrible fate. Jim is an azi dedicated to Raen. His viewpoint is interesting but also quite focused
The book doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it’s quite dark and melancholy in tone. Some of the scenes might even qualify for horror.
The Majat are the most interesting part of the book to me. They don’t have individuals but just units that know everything that the all other similar units know, except when one is given a message to deliver. If they are cut off from the hive mind, they go crazy and the others kill them.