Angel with the Sword - C.J. Cherryh 3.5 – 4 stars

So, I finally popped my Cherryh. It took me awhile, but believe me, it’s not from a lack of trying! C. J. Cherryh is one of those writers who looms pretty large in SF/Fantasy genre circles without making too much noise about it. I’ve been aware of her presence for years, and I know that she is viewed as both an excellent writer and, at times, a difficult one. She has, I believe, a strong and devoted following and in general just seems like the kind of writer you really ought to have read if you travel in the genre circles I do. And I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve bounced off at least one of her fantasy books, and another of her more famous SF ones. I’ve still kept my eye on her though and this time things seem to have clicked for us. Don’t know if it was the timing, the specific novel I chose, or something else, but I thoroughly enjoyed _Angel with the Sword_ and am looking forward to diving into more of Cherryh’s extensive ouvre with higher hopes that at least some will be to my liking.

Cherryh has been a very prolific author. As mentioned above she has penned both SF and fantasy tomes (as well as the blended Science Fantasy that partakes of both) and much of her significant SF output has been in multiple series that span time, space, and in some ways even genre and yet all of which are part of a much larger future history of mankind amongst the stars (The Alliance-Union universe of which this volume is a peripheral part). I love this kind of thing, or at least I love the idea of it. Sprawling future histories with room to really explore differing political, ideological, and personal aspects of the human condition, along with all of that cool what-if technology and even crossing into other genres (like science fantasy) gives me a happy feeling. I say that I like the idea of it, though, because up to this point I have to admit that I have yet to find a future history series that has really clicked for me.

While I would classify this book as science fiction it looks much more like a fantasy at first blush. The world of Merovin in which we find ourselves appears to be something analagous to the late Renaissance, but it is made clear from the start that this is a fallen colony world that no longer has access to the high technology of the space-farers who were the colonist's ancestors. Also, these colonial descendants have not forgotten from whence they came (though at this point most of the details are lost) so it isn't a case of a primitive world that views technology as magic, though it is one where it is strictly limited due to lack of knowledge, limited resources, and most importantly a set of cultural restrictions that have become part and parcel of what it means to be a Merovingen and which harken back to the catastrophes that brought about their separation from the rest of the Human ecumene.

In this book Cherryh has in some ways taken what we would consider the traditional approach to her cast of characters and turned it on its head. The character of Mondragon (the aristocratic, sword-wielding figure of authority embroiled in high politics and nation-shaking events), who in almost any other sci-fi/fantasy work would have been the hero, is instead the secondary character while we follow the one who would normally be the side-kick: Altair Jones, a lowly skip pilot barely eking out a living moving illegal freight across the canals and rivers of a Venice-like city on this lost colony world of Merovin. To add to the inversion Mondragon is the one who needs to be saved by her, which certainly makes for an intriguing story as we follow Altair in her attempts to navigate both the lowly ‘canal-side’ world on the periphery of the criminal underworld with which she is familiar as well as the ‘hightown’ world of aristocrats and power brokers in which she is a true fish out of water.

The detail with which Cherryh builds the world of Merovin is impressive. She makes use of both an introduction to set the scene as well as an appendix at the back of the book to give greater detail to the interested reader on the culture that she builds in the novel proper. Her world-building within the context of the story proper, however, is done without resort to the dreaded infodump and she trusts the reader to gather the pieces left through passing comments and references made by characters and the tight third person narration and put them together themselves such that details of the broader picture can be distilled from the context in which they occur. I was probably most impressed with the vivid picture she painted of the life of Altair herself. It is a life that has been mostly hand-to-mouth where many things we would likely consider to be necessities are for Altair the greatest of luxuries to be obtained only in the rarest of circumstances (such as sugar for one’s tea). We are never bashed over the head with this, but simply come to appreciate the kind of life that a canaler on Merovin can come to expect. This of course comes into even greater focus as Altair is drawn into the hightown world that Mondragon calls home.

What ensues is a cat-and-mouse game of conspiracies and mysteries set against the backdrop of a hard-scrabble world that has lost everything but hope, and even that is of a rather callous sort. The real star is Altair Jones, an extremely well-drawn heroine who thinks and acts in ways that make sense and allow her to seem like a real person, not a literary archetype or a plot element. The world we get to live in for a short time is intriguing and colourful and certainly held my interest. The plot was intricate without being convoluted and was certainly strong enough to bear the weight that the world and characters demanded. The long and the short of it is that this book leaves me with a desire to read much more of Cherryh’s work and a sense of anticipation at what I might find there. That, my friends, is definitely a good thing.