I did try to read some other genre to give you all a break from Union-Alliance space, but pffffft, couldn’t do it. So suck it up, Buttercup. We are on to a new area of space.
When I started this book, one of five in this series, I was like, whaaaaaaa? The protagonist is a feline type creature, really more lion-type creature, and I am not into that kind of fantasy stuff, but as I continued, I really got into it. These creatures are the Hani, and they live on a planet somewhat like earth with an atmosphere and breathable air. It is a matriarchal society (yea, us girls), and the males fight each other to be the Lord of a family with its lands and mansions, etc., They are considered basically unstable and unsuited for anything, and the losing males and young males born to the household, live out their days in sanctuaries, hoping for the time to challenge the reigning lords. The women run the show and are the ones who go into space.
So. How did a bunch of lions get spaceships and knowledge? From the Mahendo’sat (singular mahe), black or brown primate-like creatures, human-size or larger. They are very curious, innovative and politically oriented. The Mahendo’sat political system is based on the concept of Personage, a charismatic figure with a lot of social credit. The Mahendo’sat got the primitive Hani upgraded to modern day and space travel in order to enlarge their own sphere of influence and keep the Kif, very tall, grey rodent-like species, warlike, grabby, and essentially nasty, from taking over everything.
This all takes place in a different region of space many jumps (read far far far) from the area inhabited by the Union-Alliance humans, and it inhabited by numerous alien spacefaring civilizations. It is said that the Chanur novels are unusually realistic examples of space opera, with ship-to-ship shooting minimized in favor of coercion, manipulation, politics, pride contests, and clashing economic interests, driven in many cases by species-to-species miscommunication and misunderstanding.
This area of space has some cool beings in it. For instance, the Stsho. The Stsho are slight, slender, fragile, crested bird-like white beings (even their eyes are pearly white), xenophobic and non-aggressive. Stsho rely on wealth, trade, and alliances to keep their independence; they have devised the trade and legal procedures of the Compact. Although they are tame, stsho are great plotters and can cheat any other species. They hire other species for protection and order keeping in their stations, usually the mahendo’sat. They prefer delicate pleasures and pastel colors, their speech is exceedingly ceremonial and politically correct; they do not physically fight among themselves and their personalities are prone to change (“Phase”) under stress, which has many legal implications. They have three genders, gtst, gtste and gtsto, which can change with Phasing. Only the gtst (indeterminate sex) deal with other species; the gtste and gtsto (equivalent of male and female) do not normally present themselves to foreigners. There is a fourth state of being, gtsta, which is also known as Holiness. This is a sexless state usually achieved by an aged, honorable Stsho. A Stsho who is in the process of Phasing from one state to another is gtstisi. They permit no other oxygen-breathing species in their territory.
Then there are the methane-breathers, the Tc’a and Chi, and the K’nnn. Tc’a are large methane-breathing five-eyed yellow snakelike beings, and the chi are yellow arthropod-like creatures. The two species are related in a way none of the oxygen breathers understand, but are (presumably) symbiotic. They are very technologically advanced and powerful, although understanding them is tricky at best, since their brains are multi-part and their speech decodes as complex matrices of intertwined meanings. They run the methane side of most space stations.
The Knnn, the third methane breathing species, multi-legged tangles of wiry black hair, are the most technologically advanced in the Compact. Unlike other known species, they can maneuver in hyperspace and carry other ships with them. Only tc’a can communicate with them (or claim they can); the Knnn are incomprehensible and therefore deemed dangerous by the other species, not to be provoked. They trade by taking whatever they want and leaving whatever they deem sufficient as payment behind; it is an improvement over their prior habit of just taking trader ships apart.
These groups are all linked by the Compact, an trading and anti-war agreement.
The Pride of Chanur is the name of the spaceship, captained by Pyanfar Chanur, and her all-female crew. While at a station unloading cargo, a secretive creature secrets itself on board. It is a human, escaping the viscious Kif. His name is Tully, and by means of a translator tape, the crew begin to understand what happened. So basically it is about the Kif chasing the Pride to get their prisoner back, and attacking the station of Chanur’s home world, where Pyanfar’s husband has been deposed by a younger man, and Pyanfar takes him onto the spaceship with her, and absolutely unheard of action. Men did NOT go into space.
As are all of Cherryh’s books, it is highly political, full of manipulations, machinations, betrayals, treacheries, and some nifty ideas about the values of different cultures.
In the end, Tully and the husband stay on the ship, which, two males together can be really problematical for the Hani, works out really well, because it is not an issue for Humans. Eventually, a Human ship arrives in the world, from Alliance-Union space, and Tully is reunited with his own kind.
So now we have Lions and Rats and Apes and Weird Species in Space. Totally fun.