No one at Meetpoint Station had ever seen a creature like the Outsider. Naked-hided, blunt toothed and blunt-fingered, Tully was the sole surviving member of his company -- a communicative, spacefaring species hitherto unknown -- and he was a prisoner of his discoverer/captors the sadistic, treacherous kif, until his escape onto the hani ship The Pride of Chanur. Little did he know when he threw himself upon the mercy of The Pride and her crew that he put the entire hani species in jeopardy and imperiled the peace of the Compact itself. For the information this fugitive held could be the ruin or glory of any of the species at Meetpoint Station.
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This is a remarkable book, with vivid, complex characters, well-built worlds, and alien species that are clear and memorable. These species are thoroughly alien, and yet, when we consider them through Pyanfar Chanur's eyes, they make their own kind of sense.
Pyanfar Chanur is a shrewed space merchant captain. She's swashbuckling enough to thrive in the sometimes-deadly bluff and counter-bluff of trade and politics between six very distinct spacefaring species. Still, despite swagger and sharp dealings she's an honest, decent captain with a fine, honest crew of kinswomen. In fact it's that very decency, shown in the companionable laughter of crewwomen unloading cargo at dockside on a space station deep in alien territory, that makes a desperate human fugitive choose Pyanfar's ship to try to stow away on. It's also that same decency that makes Pyanfar refuse to return the human (a member of a never-before-seen seventh intelligent species) to the predatory Kif who had attacked his ship and tortured his crewmates to death.
There are some things a decent Hani captain just can't do. Only, by the end of the book, and again by the end of the series, Pyanfar changes her mind about what some of those things are.
While the human, Tully, proves his worth and earns a place in Pyanfar's small crew, the crisis with other species escalates. The deadly Kif want Tully badly enough to go to war to get him. The devious, physically-fragile, timid but ruthless Stsho want their own safety and profit at any cost to other species, and they will placate the Kif if that seems safest. The primate-like Mahendo'sat certainly want something very badly, but it's hard even for a shrewd Hani captain to detect what exactly they're after. A Mahendo'sat captain called Goldtooth seems to be turning into an ally against the Kif (and Pyanfar and her crew desperately need allies), but Goldtooth represents a Mahendo'sat Personage with unknown motives. Can even captains of sincere good will twist their orders far enough to stand by their friends when the best interests of their species come into conflict?
And then there are the methane-breathers, who make no sense to anybody who breathes oxygen, and who are wild cards that can change the whole situation.
Every time I read or listen to this book (and I've listened to it several times already, after having read it many times in hard copy), I'm struck by the book's sheer craftsmanship. It's exciting, and dramatic, but it doesn't slip across the line into melodrama. It's fascinating, and it deals with profound, complex issues, but it isn't pompous, pedantic, or analytical. It's tense and suspenseful, but it's also amusing, often in a wryly self-recognizing "Oh, isn't THAT the truth" kind of way. The story is character driven, but with a rip-snorting plot that could easily steal the show if the characters were weaker and less engaging.
By the way, this book is a stand-alone story, complete in itself. It's not a cliff-hanger. The next three books (Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back, and Chanur's Homecoming) together tell a second story about Pyanfar and her crew.The fifth book in the series, Chanur's Legacy, tells a third story all in one volume.
The five books together are a tour de force, but this first book, Pride of Chanur (punning on "pride," the emotion, and pride as in a pride of lions--the Hani are very lion-like) is one of the all-time great enjoyable works of science fiction.
C.J. is one of the best at building aliens worlds. At building characters you have empathy for or care about, not so good. Just like her huge series Foreigner, it is a cool alien world, but the main characters are not that interesting. Her characters might have fur, tails, floppy ears and or be 10ft tall, but after that I just don't care about them.