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Merchanter's Luck by C.J. Cherryh

Alliance Space.jpgI should mention, first of all, that when I started reading this book, I mistakenly believed that it was written before Cherryh's Hugo-Award winning Downbelow Station. Not true. It turns out Cherryh started writing Merchanter's Luck and then decided she wanted to work out the back story, so she wrote Downbelow Station instead. So the feeling I got while reading this one that a lot of the backstory must be explained in more detail elsewhere turns out to be true. I actually found Merchanter's Luck pretty hard to follow at times, because it seemed to assume I knew things that I didn't actually know.

So what's it about? On one level it's a Boy Meets Girl story. It's also a boy and girl from opposite sides of the track story, but both are from the merchanters culture that is part of the backbone of Cherryh's big Union-Alliance future history. The merchanters are essentially the Alliance part. In merchanters culture, families own and run freighters that run between stations and planets. Edward Stevens (not his real name) is the last survivor of his family and runs their small fifty-person freighter essentially by himself. Allison Reilly, on the other hand, is from a large and prosperous family that runs a massive freighter with a thousand people on it. These two hook up for sex while on layover at one of the stations, and before too long have formed an unlikely partnership with Reilly wealth investing in Stevens' crappy little ship in an attempt to set up a new trading line in a newly-opened direction. This is part of the back story that got confusing to me, because I didn't fully understand what was in it for the Reillys.

It can also said to be a story about pirates. Stevens' family was essentially massacred by pirates when he was ten, and he has since then become more or less a pirate himself, running shady deals at the fringes of legal trade because he doesn't have the resources to do legitimate business. That's part of what his new partnership with the Reilly clan is supposed to solve. However, the book portrays even the very legitimate, prosperous Reillys as a form of pirates themselves, who are able to legitimatize whatever questionable business they get involved with through legal and bureaucratic maneuvering. Beyond that, and most confusing of all for those who haven't read Downbelow Station, is that Stevens' ship, Lucy, is more or less hijacked by Signy Mallory at the last minute to run suspect cargo to the station they had intended to trade with in a strictly legal capacity. Mallory is a caption of a huge military ship that's part of what's called alternatively the Company Fleet and the Mazianni. They are a military arm of the old Earth Company that started the interstellar trade routes to begin with (as is explained in Downbelow Station) who have more or less gone rogue as Earth's policital power has waned. In short the Mazianni are basically pirates, and one of their ships, possibly even Mallory's, is very likely to have been the one that attacked Stevens' family ship and massacred his family when he was a child.

Well, as always in Cherryh, there are no simple good guys and bad guys, just a lot of mutually antagonistic, selfish factions jostling with each other for advantage. It's never, ever clear who is on whose side, and everybody suspects everybody else of betrayal. Nerves are always just about to snap, panic and tears are always just about to break out. I have to admit that his book kind of wore me out after a while, maybe because I find the merchanter culture (and the idea of interstellar trade in general) basically unbelievable to begin with. But maybe I'd have enjoyed this one better if I'd read Downbelow Station first, because mostly this one left me feeling confused and like I was missing huge chunks of context. Which was true! Maybe that deflated all the political intrigue for me, because it's very much a novel of political intrigue between all the various factions.

However, I thought the ending was a particularly damp squib, and I think it's because Cherryh was resisting the traditional requirements of the pirate story. In a traditional pirate romance, the orphan who survives the pirate massacre ends up being a prince, and this story, which offers a corporate princess is the form of Allison, practically begs for Stevens to end up being a prince from some other wealthy family. But he's not. We do learn his real family name in the end, and it's a name that some of the other characters have heard of, but it doesn't appear that they were an especially affluent or important family, certainly nothing like the Reillys. Cherryh always resists the easy pay-off of traditional story forms, but somehow the uneasy truce she always ends up with instead didn't work for me in this story. Maybe pirates always up the ante, demanding something more dramatic. Whatever the case, this seemed like a lesser novel than the other Cherryh books I've been reading lately.

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