C. J. Cherryh’s Merchanter’s Luck is a heady brew of redemption, paranoia, fear, endless suspicion, and more paranoia. However, this work has markedly less of the seemingly-endless (and often unjustified) political manipulation that bogs down Cherryh’s more famous novels Cyteen and Downbelow Station. Merchanter’s Luck does not snowball out with innumerable characters but rather stays focused while still linked to the greater spectrum of events in her Alliance-Union Universe covered in other works.
Plot Summary (contains limited spoilers)
Sandor Kreja (Ed Stevens – for most of the story) is the sole owner of a small cargo transport ship with faked papers etc. Most of his family was killed off by Mazianni pirates (renegade ships once/still nominally in alliance with earth sent to reduce Earths once colonies).
Sandor falls in love with Allison, a member of the Reilley family who own a very wealthy merchant ship with a thousand plus people. Partially because Sandor wanted to see Allison again and partially because he wanted more lucrative trading opportunities “across the line” in Alliance space, he makes a voyage to the space station of Pell without a crew (illegal, and very dangerous). For readers unfamiliar with Cherryh, Pell is the focal point of many of Cherryh’s works.
Sandor’s action arouses suspicion and the novel plunges into a rumination on f C. J. Cherryh’s favorite themes — manipulation, paranoia, fear, and more paranoia. Allison and some of her crew eventually joins Sandor to repair her ship’s reputation (Dublin Again) and they enter into a deal with an ex-Mazianni who joined the Alliance…
These people are living on fragile space ships and space stations around uninhabitable planets (besides Pell) and thus they must be very careful and extremely worried about others who might shift the careful balance between survival and death. Likewise loyalty to their people and families is paramount because they live in such close proximity with each other. These vital and realistic component of Allison’s fragile world justify a certain amount of the endless fear and suspicion present in the novel.
Because these people live so far from others they develop unique cultures. For example, Reilley’s Dublin Again merchantman is an entirely matrilineal society because the only way to introduce new blood into the ship is to have dalliances when you arrive at port. The ship’s children are those born on board and to those children the men on the ship act as fathers because they will never see the children they have fathered. Only a few people on the ship are actually unrelated (apparently marriage is not very prevalent in Cherryh’s world).
Also this novel has dated well since Cherryh does not dwell so much on the exact technological details it feels modern and possible. Although the main political conflicts of her Universe are in the background of the plot they are interwoven adeptly into the views, worries, actions, and opinions of the main characters.
The world is complicated (this is a good thing) but to remedy the problem new readers to her Universe need an introduction like the one in her Hugo winning Downbelow Station. This is simply a must!
I must admit, there’s too much unjustified paranoia. I know this is a a main part of Cherryh’s writings specialty perfected in her Hugo winning work Cyteen but it often detracts from the more interesting and human aspects of the story.
All in all, a very worthwhile read full of interesting characters, interesting worlds, interesting human cultures, and some real bite.