C. J. Cherryh is known mainly as a science-fiction writer who sometimes writes fantasy. And then there are the times that she seems to be doing both at the same time. Rider at the Gate, the first of her Finisterre novels, is, strictly speaking, science fiction, and is marked by Cherryh’s characteristic density of plot and solid universe-building. It reads, however, like a particularly frightening fantasy.
This particular world, settled several hundred years in the past by people from the stars, is a world in which telepathy has filled an evolutionary function: the wildlife has become adept at broadcasting images, sometimes true, most times not — deception is a survival mechanism. Among the major forms of life on the world are nighthorses, who have become addicted to human minds, particularly those who are receptive to their contact, who become riders. The riders are vital to the economy of the world, or the small portion of it that is inhabited by humans: they escort the convoys that are the main means of trade from city to city, the only defense against the harsh conditions and the telepathic wildlife. The Church, however, says that to heed the beast is the path to damnation, which puts the riders in a somewhat uneasy position: necessary, but not desirable.
Danny Fisher is a town boy who has become a rider, causing immense conflict with his family, who nevertheless welcome the money he brings in. The story begins with the arrival of a group of riders at the riders’ camp outside the town, Shamesy; they are missing their head rider, Aby Dale. She and her horse, Moon, are dead, swept off the road by a runaway truck as they rode point on the convoy. Aby’s partner, Guil Stuart, is in the camp, and takes the news hard and leaves the camp. On returning for his gear, he is shot at by a townsman. There is worse news: there is a rogue horse involved, everyone’s worst nightmare. Rogues are crazy, and can send images at remarkable distances. Jonas Westerman, leader of the three who brought the news, offers to follow Stuart and help him kill the rogue, while Ancel Harper, an old enemy of Stuart’s, says he should be shot himself. Danny, who is a junior rider and so has little in the way of status, accompanies Westerman and his group until they have a falling out, then is swept up by Harper, his brother and cousin, who are using him and his horse, Cloud, to find Stuart.
This being a C. J. Cherryh novel, there are any number of twists and turns to the plot, involving the rogue horse; a girl in the village of Tarmin, where the convoy originated, who hears the horse and wants it for her own, with disastrous results for the village; and a very special shipment that was in the cab of the truck that went over the cliff: Danny’s journey becomes a rescue mission on more than one front.
Those who know Cherryh’s work will not be surprised that the universe-building and characterizations are excellent, easily among her best. What is remarkable about this book is the way she portrays the relationship between nighthorses and riders and the interchange of images and thoughts between riders when horses are present — the horses relay the thoughts of the riders. One of Cherryh’s longstanding concerns has been communication, particularly between species, which I remember as first appearing in Hunter of Worlds and becoming a major focus in the atevi novels. There are passages that are almost stream of consciousness — but not quite — that some readers have found confusing but that build a seamless narrative in the story and add great richness to the telling.
This is one of Cherryh’s best novels from the ’90s, and for some reason is not very well known. It should be. And my take on the second book, Cloud’s Rider, is here.
(Warner Books, 1995)