Bren Cameron is human, but raised on a planet where humans are just interlopers amidst the race of beings known as Atevi, Atevi are humanoid, with black skin and hair and golden eyes, not to mention usually about seven and a half feet tall. But while they may look human in form, their culture is so very different that they and the humans forced to land on the planet two hundred years ago came to blows and war. The war ended with the humans banished to a small island known as Mospheira, and a single human diplomat to both learn Atevi culture and be the negotiator between the two very different cultures, called a paidhi. Technically, a Paidhi is an interpreter, but in practice is a diplomat/negotiator who manages the technology exchange between the somewhat more advanced humans and the original steam-powered Atevi culture.
Bren is merely the latest human to serve in this post, but during his tenure, he has learned more about the Atevi than any of his predecessors, and aligned with the Great Southern Lord, Tabini, has brought Atevi culture, kicking and screaming at times, into the space age. In just his short time in his role, the Space Station constructed from the remains of the starship that brought the humans to the Atevi planet has been repopulated with mostly Atevi in charge, and the return of the Starship, Phoenix, has been dealt with, as well as Bren serving as Ambassador to another alien race discovered by the Phoenix, the Kyo.
With the return of Bren, the Dowager Duchess Ilsidi, and Cajieri, Tabini's eldest son and heir. Bren was dumped back into a war that some of the Atevi had been fighting with Tabini. When someone attempted to take out Bren by bombing his apartment at court, he, Ilsidi and Cajieri were sent to lands in the East near those owned by Lord Geigi, who now rules over the Space Station above, to get them safely out of the way and for Tabini to deal with the remaining rebels responsible. However, the rebels were in the east as well, and Bren discovered that some of Geigi's relatives were part of them. But behind them all seemed to be the Lord Mashigi, a young and fairly dangerous lord.
Masigi maintained that he and his branch were not behind the rebels or the assassination attempt on Bren, but no one really believed him, and the situation got worse when Bren's brother Toby and his wife and Bren's old lover Barb decided to come to Bren's aid and assistance in Toby's fishing boat. Add to that Cajieri having trouble developing a sense of man'chi, or loyalty, among the members of the assassin's guild assigned to him as bodyguards, ends with Cajieri disappearing from the house to teach them a lesson, and two members of the guild going in search of him, believing him to have been kidnapped by Mashigi's men. However, he has merely been hiding, and the fallout ends with Barb having been kidnapped and Toby injured, and Bren, who suspects that Mashigi is telling the truth about not being involved in all of this, ends up handing himself and his own bodyguards over to Mashigi to serve as a negotiator between Mashigi, and since Mashigi does not trust Tabini at all, the Dowager Ilsidi, to broker peace, take out the rebels, and hopefully keep Mashigi in charge of the area and clear his name.
Bren is bruised and injured, and since none of the Atevi have even seen a human, much less like them, there is a possibility that one of Mashigi's servants will attempt to kill Bren, either with gun, knife or poison, and may even poison him accidentally simply by cooking him something that is fine for Atevi and poisonous to humans. And at the same time, Bren must try to talk the decidedly suspicious Mashigi into allying with Tabini through the person of the Dowager Duchess Ilsidi, and the Western association she represents, who are also not all that happy with the actions that Tabini has taken to bring Atevi society into the space age, since many of them are suspicious even of technology like the railroad that is tying the continent closer together.
And even if Bren can bring Mashigi around to allying with the Dowager Duchess, there is the small matters of the other rebels who are responsible for the attack on the estate, the still-missing bodyguard of Cajieri, Lucasi, the guild contract out on Mashigi and his house by the Assassin's Guild, who believe Mashigi responsible for the attack, and the need to escape from Mashigi's estate when he becomes more useful to the rebels dead than alive. But to bring everything to a successful conclusion, Bren will have to break man'chi to Tabini and transfer it to Mashigi so that he can argue Mashigi's side. And since the Atevi language has no words for love or affection and fourteen for betrayal, how will Tabini deal with this betrayal of Bren's loyalty to him? Will Bren's salvation also ultimately lead to his undoing and death?
Although this rather pains me to say it, the plot of many of the Foreigner series books is very much the same: Bren is attacked, gets in trouble, and otherwise gets put between a rock and a hard place, where he must think and plan and use his knowledge of Atevi culture to find his way out of the peril he is in. So far, he has foiled two rebellions against Tabini (I guess this one counts as the third, inasmuch as it is resolved at the end of this book), and a rebellion against the captain of the Spaceship that brought them to meet the Kyo.
But even if the general course of events is very often the same in what is happening in a broad sense, you never feel like you are reading the same book again and again, and the tension of the stories, as well as the very real alienness of the Atevi culture and mindset, keep me coming back for more and more. And that very alienness is also a great part of what keeps me coming back to the series for more. Atevi may resemble humans in looks and form, but their minds are authentically non-human and alien, as are their attitudes. And no matter how well Bren, a human, may understand their culture, he also knows he can never feel the same emotions and pulls that the Atevi do, almost instinctively.
Actually, in this volume, through the person of Tabini's heir, Cajieri, we get to see that the feelings of man'chi is not actually instinctive- some of it might be, but it is only through living in the midst of Atevi society that their young people develop it. Cajieri, who spent some years on board the Starship Phoenix, only comes to feel and appreciate man'chi with his bodyguards in this volume, and I couldn't tell if the time on the ship, among humans, delayed this sense or if all Atevi develop it so late in their lives.
And despite how I have made it sound, the book isn't all talking heads and thinking. Cherryh is a writer who can make even mere diplomatic negotiations equally as exciting as combat, and while there isn't much combat, since Bren is not very good at taking care of himself in a fight (most of the time, his bodyguard won't even let him carry a gun), there is still a lot of danger that he and his closest bodyguards, Algini, Banichi and Jago, must make their way through on foot, while Bren is still wounded and weak. There is plenty of excitement in this book, and yes, even combat, although much of it takes place off-screen. It's a thrilling read, and I was plenty glad to be in the middle of it.
For those who want an exciting book and authentically alien aliens with a very foreign mindset and culture, you can certainly do a lot worse than this series, and I think there are none (or perhaps few) better. While this is probably not the best volume to start with (it being the end of a fourth trilogy), I would not hesitate to check out the entire series, as this is really good stuff for those who love Sci-Fi and wonder what a real alien race might be like. Highly recommended, both this volume and the entire series.