May 19th, 2018

Winter Sunlight

Read all the Cherryh: Rider at the Gate & Cloud's Rider

I really enjoyed these! For one thing, these are probably the most Alaska-esque books that I have ever read in SFF, considerably more so than a lot of books which are supposed to be set on ice worlds or frontier planets. I mean, I don't think these books are actually supposed to be evocative of Alaska, but they really, really are. They just felt accurate - not just the physical details of the weather and terrain and frontier lifestyle (although that, too), but the psychology of it: the way people deal with scarcity and isolation and knowing that every time you go out the front door, something might try to kill you. (Though we don't have to deal with swarming packs of psychic predators, thankfully. We just get thousand-pound killing machines that can run as fast as a horse, i.e. bears. One of the weirdest things to me about hiking in Illinois was having to train myself out of constantly being alert and paranoid and searching the trees for dangerous predators, because there just WEREN'T any.)

So yeah. Alaska. I think it took me awhile to get through the second book in part because the claustrophobic air of snowed-in isolation was a little too evocative of real life and we just got DONE with winter, dammit. I have generally been impressed with Cherryh's ability to psychologically inhabit her characters - it's one of the things she does very well, getting inside the nitty-gritty details of what it would feel like to live your whole life on a space station or to be part of an alien lion-person clan. But it takes it to a whole new level when she's doing it with a kind of lifestyle that I've experienced and I'm pretty sure she hasn't (she's from Oklahoma, ffs!) and really nails that too.

Plus, this series is about wilderness scouts who are telepathically bonded to carnivorous psychic horses. In a lot of ways these books, the first one especially, feel as if they were written exactly for me, at least in terms of the worldbuilding. I didn't find myself bonding as closely with the characters as I normally do in Cherryh books, for whatever reason. The worldbuilding, though. Gah. I could just wallow in it. I brought up the possibility to [personal profile] rachelmanija that I actually read these books, or parts of them, when I was a kid, because some of the worlds I came up with and wrote about as a kid were eerily similar to this, but then I looked up the publication dates and the first one was published in 1995, when I was in college, so I couldn't have. Apparently it's just convergent evolution between my own childhood creative urges and the Alaska-esque worldbuilding + telepathic horses, which I was also thoroughly into as a kid and used to write and draw about a lot, as one does when one is a horse-crazy 9-year-old living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. (Though I still find it slightly eerie that, apparently, I managed to independently come up with something in the mid-80s that was damn similar to this book, small enclaves of humanity living in a wilderness that can only be navigated by guides in telepathic partnership with native horselike creatures. Mine were called wilderhorses - "wilder" is pronounced like "builder" - and night-riders were the people who rode them, and Cherryh's are nighthorses ...!)

Anyway, these books take place on a forested, mountainous planet that has been partially colonized by humans who have lost contact with their world of origin. Their technology is roughly mid-1900s - they have electricity, internal combustion engines, metal and petroleum refining, telephones, etc. They are restricted primarily to a scattering of smallish, walled towns because this planet's wilderness is extremely difficult to penetrate. Basically, it's psychic.

Everything native to the planet is telepathic - something like CS Friedman's Coldfire books, but aggressively so, using their natural psychic abilities to tempt, confuse, and distract their prey; the general aggregate of the telepathic sendings of the planet's wildlife exists as a sort of collective psychic background noise called the ambient. Humans, having no natural telepathy of their own, have no defenses against it. Hence their partnership with nighthorses, local apex predators who are intelligent enough to be interested and curious about humans anyway, and sought out humans on their own to find out more about them. They're not quite human-level intellects, more like on the level of a very smart dog. Being around humans makes them smarter, or at least more capable of long-range planning, whereas being around them enables humans to participate in the ambient - picking up and receiving the thoughts of anyone around them (human or otherwise). You can imagine how popular that is in a city-type living situation. Consequently, the nighthorse riders are a separate class, absolutely necessary for safe travel through the wilderness, but distrusted by suspicious townsfolk and kept outside the walls of the planets small, pallisaded towns. The plot of the first book concerns a nighthorse gone rogue, capable of driving everyone and everything around it insane, and the hunters sent to stop it, as winter closes on the mountains. The second book picks up from where the first one left off and deals with the following winter in the mountains.

I tore through the first book like wildfire, but found the second slower going, in part because it ended up focusing mainly on characters from the first book who weren't my favorites (I didn't dislike them at all, and they definitely grew on me; they just weren't the ones I really wanted to be reading more about), as well as - as mentioned above - the author's ability to depict claustrophobic, snowed-in isolation a little too well. But yeah, fun books, really liked 'em, probably picking up at least the first book for myself (they were borrowed), and there's a lovely found-family vibe by the end. Recommend. :D And God, I'm glad bears aren't telepathic.

Feel free to mention spoilers in the comments!

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