Delarua, a biotechnician on Cygnus Beta, has to work with Dllenahkh, an alien government official whose planet has just been destroyed, as part of a team to attempt to settle his party of refugees effectively. It's all about co-operation and negotiation and accomodation, as they try to integrate Dllenahkh's people into Cygnus Beta without demanding assimilation from either side. They spend most of the book travelling around Cygnus Beta trying to work out what the Sadiri need in order to settle, and the book does a very good job of managing to show us a variety of cultures and the enormous impact of this much destruction, while not ignoring the personal side at ALL. I adored all the members of the team, and their friendships. It's a two protagonist book definitely, but the supporting cast is a ton of fun.
The world-building is stunning. Cygnus Beta actually feels like a whole planet: there are a variety of cultures and political entities, and none of these are unrealistically isolated from each other. There are humans, but there are no direct analogues to current or historical human cultures, although it's clear that Earth's cultures have not been forgotten.
It reminded me strongly of Janet Kagan, particularly Hellspark, or Vonda McIntyre's Starfarers books. Lord has that same interest in generally well-intentioned people trying to do their best. Unlike in Hellspark, Lord introduces social complications that are a matter of much more than etiquette and that her protagonists are incapable of actually solving, but this isn't a world where terrible things happen constantly because that's supposed to be "realistic." Terrible things happen, but good things too, and it's always reasonable to at least try.
Lord also does a wonderful job creating a society that is very concerned with fertility and the sense that they really need to not die out (which is a very comprehensible response to massive death tolls), but that nevertheless actually has solid respect for women and motherhood. I've read too much SF that seemed to think that you absolutely couldn't do anything except be sexist in order to encourage women to have kids, so it was nice to see someone write a society that was casually very, very interested in babies, but also very, very convinced that women are people. (Nb: no babies actually appear; it was just obvious that many of the characters were interested in them and planned to have them in the future. I am not into kidfic and found this book incredibly charming.)
The only complaint I can make about this book is that this is the cover (with a very similar picture of a man's face on the back), which is irritating when I'm not sure anyone in this book is anywhere near that pale. This is not Lord's fault in any way, but should perhaps be mentioned.
Also I wanted to squish Delarua and Dllenahkh's faces together (or, whatever, cause them to subtly brush the sides of their hands against each other in a culturally appropriate public display of affection. One of the two.) And then the book did it for me! With amazing build-up of their professional and friendly relationships, and dealing with their assorted relationship issues! Also telepathy! I'm amazed by Lord's ability to demonstrate the more horrible side of telepathy, and then make it a charming and non-invasive part of their courtship, because telepathy sounds HORRIBLE to me in general, but I could really feel what they were getting out of it by the end (plus they did actually have some degree of mental privacy, which seems so desperately necessary, I must say.)
Occasionally this book did feel a little bit like nuTrek fic that had said fuck YOU, movie, I'm going to have COHERENCE and DEAL WITH massive trauma. But only in a great way. There's an author's note that says she did a bunch of reading on the cultural trauma caused by the 2004 tsunami, which I'm perfectly sure is true, but a lot of the plot beats were awfully similar to the destruction of Vulcan arc. Especially the time travel. And the people who turn out to have destroyed it. And Dllenahkh's ex-wife who arranged for him to to fight her lover. The Sadiri in general are a little like a Vulcan that actually makes sense. Other than the ex-wife though, Dllenahkh is very much not Spock (though if you like Spock, you'll probably like him), and Delarua is neither Kirk nor Uhura in any way. So I'm not saying that it feels like Trek fanfic with the serial numbers filed off. But if you were at all interested in a response to the issues that that movie raised and then failed utterly to deal with, then you might like this.
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