Let me begin by talking about the general premises of the series. It is set in a far future where the human race of the planet earth have achieved space travel, and some kind of faster than light techniques, a folded space technique, that allows them into far distant star systems. Due to some malfuction, a ship loaded with settlers, miners, etc. ends up in a place they cannot locate and the ship is out of fuel. They use their equipment to build a space station hovering over a habitable planet, but when it becomes apparent the Pilots Guild only wants all that work to refuel their ship, the station folks begin leaving the station on one-way drop ships and inhabit the planet where they discover other inhabitants, the atevi.
The atevi, as best as I can understand, are a human species, much taller and bigger than humans from earth, and dark black skinned. They have a court society. complete with fancy dress, lace, courtly manners, etc. Think Louis XV. Their society is millennia old. Where did these court notions come from? Very odd. The society is basically a lot of competing clans and ruling families, and for the first time ever, the ruler of the biggest area with the biggest aggregate of clans now essentially rules the planet.
I just find the idea of another human species, only bigger, better and blacker, to be a strange concept, although the series is fun. When the earth humans first arrive on the planet, in spite of their vast history, the atevi had only arrived at the steam age era of technological development.
Well, in this 8th installment, exhausted from a two-year rescue mission in space, the crew of the starship Phoenix return home to find disaster: civil war has broken out, the powerful Western Association has been overthrown, and Tabini-aiji, its forceful leader, is missing. In a desperate move, paidhi Bren Cameron and Tabini’s grandmother Ilisidi, the aiji-dowager, along with with Cajeiri, Tabini’s eight-year-old heir, make planetfall and succeed in reaching the mainland. The brilliant and forceful Ilisidi seeks refuge at the estate of an old ally, and Tabini-aiji arrives at the door.
As word of Tabini’s whereabouts circulates, clans allied with Tabini descend upon the estate, providing a huge civilian presence that everyone involved hopes will deter impending attacks by the usurpers. But as more and more supporting clans arrive, Bren finds himself increasingly isolated, and it becomes clear that both his extremely important report of alien contact in space, and even his life, rest on the shoulders of only two allies: Ilisidi and Cajeiri.
Can one elderly ateva and and eight-year-old boy—himself a prime target for assassination—protect Bren, a lone human involved in a civil war that most atevi believe he caused?
More political intrigue, more internal musing by Bren. Frankly, this volume felt a bit padded, stretching out the plotline from the previous volume of Bren and the Dowager and the 8 year old son, plus their bodyguards, their security, crashing through the terrain looking for the disappeared Aijii, hoping he is not dead.
The fun part of this volume is that they end up with the boy’s great uncle, at his venerable estate. He is a curmudgeon, hates humans and the technology they have brought to his country, but the enemy forces of the aiji are showing up at his estate in attempts to murder both the dowager and the son, destroying lots of valuable property, ruining his fields and plantings, and every group who shows up he is forced by custom to house and feed, and is appalled by the cost of all this.
The Pretender in the title refers to a double-dealing upstart who has declared the aiji dead, and has taken over the government, and the justice system, and things are looking dire, but we can guess that he will get his just desserts in the end.