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.