Cloud’s Rider

I love C.J. Cherryh, for her world-building, her characters, and her imagination. I picked up Cloud’s Rider before Rider At the Gate because of how difficult it is sometimes to get a complete list of a series in order, and probably because the nice lady stocking shelves at the library was chattering at me.

I really enjoyed the world of Cloud’s Rider. Humans live on a colony planet called Finisterre, and the average person thinks regularly about the fact they are colonists, but doesn’t often reflect on why they are alone or the conflicts inherent in the religion their ancestors created. They landed on a planet with sentient, friendly, telepathic animal life that wants to bond permanently with humans in a telepathic pairing (and protect them from the nonsentient, carnivorous, telepathic animal life). The human colonies need the “horses” to guard their walled villages from swarms of “vermin” that can literally eat them alive and wipe an entire village out, even luring them out of locked houses telepathically. Still, they call the riders “damned” for bonding with the horses. It’s really an original concept – throw in a demanding winter climate and living on mountain tops, and an abused, sociopathic human girl who has called a heretofore unknown sentient, carnivorous, malevolent, telepathic creature out of the High Wilds to bond with her just by living and you’ve got a tale!

I really liked the book, I did. And Cherryh did her usual job of turning tables on gender equality – there was a female doctor and lawyer, families including women run businesses, women and men were both riders and protectors of villagers and convoys of supplies.

Now of the two female riders in the book, both of them had a suspicious bent, being more unlikely to give a person a break or trust a stranger (even with a telepathic horse around). The reason for Tara was her village was just destroyed by a swarm of vermin led by a sociopathic little girl on a rogue horse; the reason for Callie was her personality and/or her daughter was close to bonding with a young colt and/or her horse was pregnant and being grouchy, affecting her mood. Perhaps Cherryh was avoiding the touchy feely motherly female syndrome. But it left the friendly warm fuzzies to the guys and made the women seem hard to get along with and cold and… well, like the stereotype of women with any kind of power, you can fill in the nasty word. And although Callie’s suspicions were justified, it was her partner Ridley who acted – to find out and to settle the matter. All she did was fight with him about it.

Another major character was the doctor the sociopathic little girl was taken to, comatose, to be cared for. She wasn’t informed about Brionne’s state of mind or the likelihood of her calling telepathically to creatures that the village wouldn’t want around, so she can’t be blamed for not understanding why the girl acted strangely when she woke up. What is odd is the doctor’s obsession with her dead daughter to the point she called Brionne by her daughter Faye’s name, and kept pretending Faye had come back to life.

I think Brionne’s story is more detailed in Rider at the Gate, so I don’t know if the abusive home or the rogue horse is to blame for Brionne’s bent. In any case her story arc is central to the book, though her gender is not; most of the book she is asleep.

A subplot is Ridley and Callie’s daughter, Jennie, who is 8, and absolutely determined to have Rain, the 2 year old colt horse, as her own. 8 is young to bond to a horse because Riders are adults with adult responsibilities and newly bonded horses often go out for a spring ride alone, and there’s a sexual component to partnership that makes it normal for male horses to bond to male humans and vice versa (reminiscent of the dragonriders of Pern, in my mind). Daniel Fisher comes from a bigger Rider camp and he assures the parents that he’s seen “mismatched” pairs like that who make it work “somehow.” It’s subtle but it’s the only mention of homosexuality – it bothered me because it took a really long time for me to catch on to the problem. Even when I figured out the problem was the sexual component of Rider partnership, I thought it was her age that was the problem, not the idea of her sleeping with women.

So, as a world, as a story, it was original and I liked it. As a gender and sexual identity statement, it either went over my head or it kinda failed – in any case, not my fave. But it won’t stop me finishing Cherryh’s work or even the series.


  1. Cloudtigress says

    Lurking here for the last fee weeks, and this is my first post here, on one of my favorite authors. Heh. :)

    First, there’s only two books in the series, unhappily. The first publisher stopped publishing SF, I think, leaving various contractual reasons against Cherryh’s taking the series to a different publisher. There’s other reasons, too, but I don’t know the publishing business well enough to guess what they might be.

    Second, while it’s been awhile since I read those books, I don’t recall Brionne being abused by her parents. Her two older brothers were physically abused, but Brionne wasn’t. She was, however, spoiled rotten. Anything she wanted, her parents got for her, and never disciplined her. Which is why she turned into such a sociopath by the time she’s introduced in the first book. You don’t need abuse to make sociopathic people, after all. Just don’t teach them how to emphasize with others, and you get the same results. (this is from the Riders at the Gate book, btw.)

    Third, I don’t believe the nighthorses are supposed to be sentient. Smart, yes, but on the level of a regular horse (who are already more than smart enough, thanks!) rather than human smart. I think the only telepathic beastie that was showing any signs of sentience was the critter Brionne called down from the High Wild. The way it got past the town’s defenders showed a degree of planning, which the nighthorses don’t really have.

    A possible reason for why the Riders are not really welcomed in the towns they protect: when the first humans arrived on the world, the native wildlife hit the settlers with images of their fears and desires ( which is how the critters were shown using their powers to get prey in the books), leading to general craziness until the nighthorses decided to bond with the tasty humans and chase the other critters away (the native wildlife is scared of predatory nighthorses, remember). The survivors decide that anyone who’d willingly go out among insanity-causing animals is insane themselves, and pretty much shun the Riders. Just me using small clues to concoct a possible backstory here, not something that’s been explicitly revealed in the books anyplace.

    • says

      You don’t need abuse to make sociopathic people, after all. Just don’t teach them how to emphasize with others, and you get the same results.

      That’s considered a form of emotional abuse.

      • Cloudtigress says

        Give me a year and I’ll think of a good way to phrase what I’m trying to say. :/

        I guess ‘Brionne wasn’t beaten, but was overly indulged and not disciplined instead’ is a food summary. Her parents weren’t trying to use harm in raising her like they used on her brothers. But you’re right, severe spoiling of a child is a form of abuse, and looked at from that angle, Brionne’s been abused.

  2. Firebird says

    I really like Cherryh also. 😉 I hope you enjoyed the review.

    I wasn’t sure without reading the first book what level of abuse Brionne suffered. She became a sociopath and her older brother killed their father – definitely some problems in that family! I just didn’t want to critique that storyline without all the facts.

    We could debate what constitutes sentience, but that’s not really the point, and I didn’t mean to sassy they were as smart as humans, only that they are self aware and capable of planning.

    It didn’t seem odd to me at all that fundamentalist religion would reject a pair bond with a telepathic animal as evil, especially one that led the human to sexual relations with the rider of whatever horse one’s horse mates with. Religion/cultural authority likes to be in control and keeping riders who actually have the safety of the villages in their power segregated is one way to control them; threatening the villagers with damnation is a way to maintain control by keeping the number of riders down to those who can’t resist the call. Not that any of that is necessarily planned out as such; some may be but a lot of it is behavior we know how to do without really planning it out.

    • Cloudtigress says

      First off, I did like your review. Second, a few more comments dredged up from my memory of this book/series (my copies are in storage and I can’t get to them easily right now).

      Brionne was always self-centered; her bonding to the rogue horse only gave her the power to punish her fellow villagers for their slights against her, both real and imagined. What those slights are, and why the rogue horse went rogue to begin with, I’ll leave it for you to discover when you read the first book. :). (Trying to avoid spoiling things too much for you, or else you might not enjoy it as much.)

      Ridley was that camp’s Rider boss, which was why he was the one to confront Danny about what happened in the other village, and why the nighthorse Spook was ‘haunting’ them.

      One of the things that might not have been described super clear in this book is Cherryh’s ‘rules’ for telepathy in this world. Telepathy’s not part of the psychic continuum (telepathy, telekinetics, teleporting, ect.) here, it’s part of the Electro-Magnetic spectum. In other words, brainwaves are akin to radio and TV signals, with the native wildlife able to receive and rebroadcast to anyone far and wide everything going through a human’s mind at any given moment. Given that most humans probably can’t handle having that kind of mental exposure 24/7, a desire to keep the wildlife at a great distance is understandable. (Basically, the nighthorse world can fit into Cherryh’s Union-Alliance universe with almost no trouble using those rules for telepathy.)

      One small point about religion in Cloud’s Rider: the religious in the smaller villages are actually somewhat more tolerant in practice towards the Riders than the religious in the larger towns. Probably because in the smaller villages the Riders and the villagers have to interact with each other a lot more for both sides to survive, while in the larger towns it’s possible to live your entire life in either town or camp and not meet anyone from the other side, and thus easier to ‘other’ them.

      Just rambling food for thought.

  3. megsies says

    I also read the books “backwards” based on availability and I don’t think it harms the experience at all. Cherryh is one of my favorite writers based on her world building, but I’m especially fond of her unabashedly cold characters. I never feel like the people who are logical and do what they have to do to survive are ever blamed for not being able to predict the future like you see in so many other stories.

    I always thought that Jennie’s parents were worried about the age issue with her and Rain, but tried to convince her to wait for another foal by telling her she should have a filly.

    • Firebird says

      Perhaps that is all it is. Considering apparently the series didn’t finish we will never know :(. I have noticed for example in Cyteen and Regenesis there are several male gay couples but no female gay couples, which may have informed my comment on Jennie & Rain.

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