Book Report: Merchanter’s Luck: Rendezvous at Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh (1982)

Book coverThe 2023 Winter Reading Challenge has a category entitled “Set in Space”, and this was the first space paperback that I set my hands on. It was a pretty fine DAW first edition when I started it, but it’s a read copy now, which is just as well.

I have not read a Cherryh book since middle school or high school, when I came across a copy of The Pride of Chanur at the library and recognized the title from the song “The Pride of Chanur” by Leslie Fish from a collection of filk music, Quarks and Quests, that I’d ordered basically for the cost of shipping from the back of an Analog or Asimov science fiction magazine.

Uh, spoiler alert: That is a good summary of the plot of The Pride of Chanur, which I also bought in….2007? Which is odd; I am pretty sure that I just came across a paperback copy of the book in the stacks, too, so maybe I have two.

At any rate, it has taken me this long (35 years) to read my second Cherryh book (probably–although I might have read another when I was younger that I do not remember).

Which is a lot of column inches to another book I’ve read by the author. What about this book?

The title on the spine is Merchanter’s Luck, but the cover also says Rendezvous at Downbelow Station which made me wonder if this book was the start of a series. Well, a moment’s research on the Internet indicates that this book followed Downbelow Station but was not so much a sequel as a book in the same part of space with some minor characters who were the major characters in the previous book.

In this book, a single owner/operator of a small merchant vessel, the sole remaining member of the family who’d owned it after they were slaughtered or taken prisoner by pirates and two other brothers died after, is down on his luck. He’s down to his last credits, he’s operating under an assumed identity and with a renamed ship, “borrowing” money from the margin account of a distant trade syndicate, and without a crew since his last hired man jumped ship, and with few prospects. In a dive bar, looking for a crewman, he encounters a beautiful woman, member of a powerful family running a ship with 1000 crew but with no prospects for young helmswomen to advance, and they spend the night together. He then vows to see her again at her ship’s next stop, several hops away. No problem for a ship crewed around the clock, but for a single man flying solo, a risky endeavor–as the hops are disorienting and the total time takes several weeks of flight time. He manages to get there and becomes a minor celebrity, but entangles himself embarrassingly with the woman’s family–which leads to the family bankrolling his operation so long as he takes five family members with him on an expedition to nigh-uncharted space where trading opportunities might be had. Or they might be bait for a trap.

The book runs 208 pages, and for the first quarter I was really enjoying the world-building and how it was worked in with the plot, and the captain of the small vessel and the woman were falling for each other. But it got a little too intriguey, with the limited omniscient narrator looking in on one then the other and the other family members and a lot of back and forth about how they could not trust each other and steps they took in their mutual distrust. I would have preferred a more straightforward narrative, but that would not have made book length without the long passages and sections where one character distrusts the other, they talk about it, and one or the other thinks about how he or she cannot trust the other. As you might know, gentle reader, I don’t really get off on intrigues, which is why I am not so fond of modern television.

At any rate, it was ultimately okay. I won’t dodge Cherryh books in the future, but I don’t know when I’ll find another on the shelves. I do have numerous other DAW books on the shelves here, including a boxed set of Andre Norton books, another author I read once or twice as a kid that led me to buy more later. I don’t know when I will get to them, but certainly not before the end of the 2023 Winter Reading Challenge.

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