by C.J. Cherryh
grim, dry, melancholy, frustrating, riveting, endearing, and tragic are all good words to describe this moving anti-epic. well it looks like there are two more words to add to this list, moving and anti-epic. now how about another: bromantic.
grim: this trilogy is about a human and two members of an alien race known as the Mri, their long flight back to their homeworld and what they find there. this is not an "adventure". it is a stark, dark tale about how easily betrayal can be rationalized and, more importantly, how hard it can be to survive that betrayal if your version of survival equals never giving an inch to your betrayers - or your allies.
dry: this trilogy is austere and introspective, and Cherryh evinces little humor and lightness in the telling. yet the dryness works perfectly and never comes across as pretentious. she approaches her subjects in a careful, detached manner and that style is a perfect fit for her story.
melancholy: one character gives up everything. two characters lose everything. they do not spend much time in reflection on the things they lost, but that loss pervades the atmosphere and their characterization from beginning to end.
frustrating: it is not the novels that frustrate, it is the characters within. the Mri are a frustratingly pure race. they do not negotiate. they do not take prisoners. they view all non-Mri as un-people; the definition of "Mri" is "the People" while all others are "tsi-Mri", or "not the People". they do not bend, they do not yield. they are a hard people and the fact that so many others are set against them makes their single-mindedness even more frustrating. why in the world would a human want to become one of them? Cherryh makes that decision understandable and the harsh Mri strangely noble, without turning them into that infernal cliché, the "noble savage".
riveting: there is much that quickens the pulse. an attempt at genocide. dangerous journeys through wastelands. political intrigue. challenges and duels and games with throwing blades. how tough it is to travel in the dark of space. spaceships bringing fire and destruction upon abandoned cities. men learning to find true connection despite an automatic inequality between them. a woman becoming a strong and fearless leader.
endearing: the dusei are empathic bear-like sidekicks to the Mri. they are scary and adorable and a fully conceived alien species. Cherryh really outdid herself in creating these fascinating, wonderful creatures. she made me dream about them.
tragic: there are two horrific slaughters in this trilogy and they cast a long shadow on all subsequent actions in the narrative. the entire journey is suffused with such a deep sadness; the tragedies made this trilogy genuinely depressing but not in a way that made me want to stop reading - in a way that made me consider all such slaughters. I admired Cherryh's ability to make these tragedies so terrible and yet so resonant. these tragedies are what happen to people like the Mri, in science fiction and in our own real world.
moving: and yet ultimately this is not a depressing work. there is much that saddens and despair is woven throughout the story. but this isn't about the end of a people; this is about how a people can perhaps survive, on their own terms. and it is a story with flawed, real characters who will stay with me.
anti-epic: do not expect sturm und drang. despite everything I listed under riveting and tragic, the music this trilogy plays is all in minor notes. things are not made to be larger-than-life; instead they are precisely the size of individual lives, no matter how great the stakes. it is not operatic, it is intimate.
bromantic: at the heart of this saga is the story of a friendship between two men, a human and an alien. watching this relationship evolve into something real and lasting was amazing. the (platonic) love that grows between them is the foundation of the entire trilogy; it is the best part of these excellent novels.