Cloud’s Rider, the second of C. J. Cherryh’s Finisterre novels, takes up where Rider at the Gate left off: Danny fisher is taking Brionne, Carlo and Randy Goss, the only survivors of Tarmin village, to Evergreen, the next village up the mountain, leaving Tara Chang and Guil Stuart at a shelter while Guil recovers from the wounds sustained in the final confrontation with Ancel Harper at the end of the previous book. This being a C. J. Cherryh novel, there are, of course, complications: Brionne has been unconscious since Guil killed the rogue horse she was riding, and so must be transported on a travois pulled by her brothers; the group is being trailed by another horse that has lost its rider and that may or may not be going rogue; and as they work their way up the winding mountain road to Evergreen, a blizzard strikes.
Evergreen village, although it doesn’t know it yet, is going to have its own problems because of the death of all inhabitants of Tarmin. Tarmin was the depot for goods from the lowland towns destined for the mountain villages, including staple food items the villagers cannot grow for themselves. At the very least, prices are going to increase and someone is going to have to handle bargaining with the towns and arranging transport up the mountain.
And, there is something else out in the forest: it could be a horse, or maybe a particularly intelligent lorry-lie or any of the other large known predators, but it has the unusual ability to blank the ambient, where horses and riders communicate and where the telepathic chatter of the native wildlife provides background noise: it broadcasts an area where nothing seems to be alive, a null spot. Whatever it is, it frightens the nighthorses, which, although omnivores, do hunt and aren’t afraid of much.
If anything, the second book of Finisterre is richer than the first. Rider at the Gate provided an engrossing portrait of rider society and the way interpersonal reactions are colored by being filtered through the horses in the ambient. Cloud’s Rider takes place mostly in the village of Evergreen, and illustrates Cherryh’s strength in building societies. The riders and villagers exist in separate worlds: the camp boss is the head of the riders and makes decisions regarding the welfare of the camp, which does affect the welfare of the village, but village officials keep a strict hands-off on camp affairs. The two consult on matters of mutual concern — in this case, the lost horse and the mysterious presence out in the forest, and, as she regains consciousness, Brionne Goss, who was responsible for the death of Tarmin. Cherryh builds a detailed and absorbing context for the story in her portrayal of this two-part society.
Another of Cherryh’s strengths has always been characterization. I mentioned in my review of Rider at the Gate her concerns with interspecies communication, which becomes an amazingly effective device for building character in this book: the characters include not only the villagers and the riders, but the horses, drawn with subtlety and great effect through their comments and reactions to events.
And, true to form, Cherryh throws in enough complications to keep the story moving (although there is a bit too much struggling-up-the-mountain-in-a blizzard going on in the beginning). Interior monologue, one of Cherryh’s great problems in her novels of the 1990s, is at a merciful minimum — the riders are at pains to moderate their thoughts because their horses will pick them up and echo them, so that after the initial lurch, the pace is steady and fast enough to keep the pages turning.
Not the least of the appeal of these two books is that they are science fiction, and yet have a spooky, fantastic feel to them that I don’t think many “dark” fantasies have equaled, especially this second volume. Either one is an excellent choice for a dark and stormy night.
(Warner Books, 1996)