The epic conclusion to the Hugo Award-nominated saga begins as alien entities called "humans" send their first exploration ship into Compact space, disrupting the seven Compact races' alliance. Pyanfar Chanur and her feline hani crew give shelter to the only surviving human from the ship, pitching them into the center of a galactic maelstrom which could cause interstellar war.
A bit of a slow start as the plot recaps where Py is and how she got to be in the mess she is. In fact a slightly slower book all round than the last one, because there is a lot ot be explained, a lot to be conjectured, and some intricate details of 3D space fighting to comprehend. The last is done remarkably well, without significant info dumps.
We take up the story still at Kefk. Py has been tasked by Sikkukkut to take a nominal friendly station Meetpoint (where all of Py's troubles began) in his name and with the aid of his ships. Py's just about got enough face to keep hold of the other hani inport and to convince the mahe Jik to keep wih her. However it remains to be seen if Goldtooth is working along the same lines. Meanwhile it transpires that teh Han have allied with Sikkukkut's enemy meaning Py is technically conducting treason. As she discovers so well might both the human Tully and Jik! To make maters worse her kiffish ally Sikkukkut has threatened her homeworld - the only hani world - which due to the complexities o hani politics is enough for her to swear lifelong bloodfued against him, a concept the kif, along with martyr and friend, cannot biologically understand. A climactic finish with a bit of an unlikely twist to resolve matters.
Gripping read - really really geos inot the depths of alien cultures and how cultures can just think along completely different lines. Another work of pure art from a master of what it means to be human.
Pyanfar Chanur--the main character in these books--grows weary of being other folks' pawn and takes control of her destiny. This impacts many others' destiny as an unintended side effect. The joy, here, is watching all this work itself out. As always, Cherryh's stories are deeply imagined, well-written, and grounded in careful research.
I've commented before on this author's methods. She's unusually reticent about revealing more than her characters know, which can sometimes be frustrating. But it makes her stories rich in ways no other author I read can manage. This is a special story, and exceptionally well told.
On the other hand, there is lots and lots to like in them. The aliens and their power structures are very alien, Hilfy's growth from young girl to competent spacer is well sketched out, and poor Pyanfer, trying to do the right thing even though she knows in the eyes of her world it will look exactly like the wrong thing. And I loved the games with gender, where the women travel the universe and trade, because the men must be sheltered and protected, not as a straight swap of roles, but because they are too angry and impulsive and strong and must be mollycoddled.
The second and third books don't really have an ending. The first book is 'Hani end up accidentally with a human, lots of people run around, there's a battle, everything is better.' And then books two to four tell a very similar story, but with a lot more detail. I would sort of like to reread them now I've made it to the end, because I might understand them better on the second time round, but not enough to spend months reading them all again!