What would happen if a group of humans were abandoned accidentally on an uncharted planet populated by a society physically and mentally incomprehensible to them? This is the premise of FOREIGNER, which relates the experiences of the human diplomat Bren Cameron, who interprets and monitors technology exchanges between the native atevi and the isolated human settlement. Two centuries have passed since the humans’ accidental landing, and Bren, a descendant of the first human settlers, has lived in the atevi government town long enough to befriend their leader Tabini and learn his hosts’ customs and ideas— or so he thinks. When an assassin’s bullet barely misses Bren, Tabini publicly warns the unknown offender that Bren is under his personal protection. Bren is whisked away with no explanation to Tabini’s remote country estate.
Cherryh skillfully introduces several unusual characters here, the most complex of which is Tabini’s political predecessor, his grandmother. Having lost her position to Tabini’s party, she lives at the estate, and her loyalty and sanity are questionable. During his enforced visit, Bren develops uneasy alliances with the matriarch, estate staff and his personal bodyguards. Yet even they will not answer his many questions. He is denied contact with Tabini or his office. Personal offenses—imagined or otherwise—on both sides deepen Bren’s frustration. Nevertheless, his bodyguards repeatedly assure him of their faithfulness to him. Bren suspects that the strict safety rules he must follow bind nobody but him.
Soon afterwards, Bren is captured by the head of the estate staff, who tortures him to learn where his loyalties lie. Bren learns that rival political factions threaten his position and his life. Then atevi on both sides find that the ship which left the humans on their world has returned. At this news, a rebellion erupts, and Bren finds himself on the run with the matriarch, her servants, and his bodyguards. Not knowing who to trust or even which side to take, Bren hopes the arrival of the ship can provide some answers.
FOREIGNER is a thought-provoking and intelligent novel. It is a sharp reminder of the unfortunate suspicions and prejudices people carry with their cultural baggage, either on this world or another. Unfortunately, the disjointed beginning and awkward phrasing throughout disrupt the sympathetic allure of the hero.