I would rate this 4.75 stars.
Taji is a human linguist who was supposed to be on a small moon, mostly isolated, to compile information on its language, culture, and inhabitants for the Interplanetary Trade Coalition (IPTC) databases. After the deaths of two members of a diplomatic team on the planet below named Mirsa, he is conscripted to assist Ambassador Tsomyal since he is the only person in nearby space even remotely qualified to help decipher nuances of communication in Asha, the language used throughout most of the Sha Empire. Shavians value control and stoicism except in precise culturally acceptable situations. Although humanoid, they seem to have a vast amount of nonverbal communication with their cat like ears. As a native Anglisky speaker with no training in diplomacy and a translator device with inferior software translations, he is thrown into the deep end of a foreign alien culture in political turmoil. Nicknamed Mouth by the IPTC security team, he will find out how accurate that description is as he tries to stay alive.
The IPTC sending a diplomatic team to encourage trade is just an experiment to save the cost of war. They are on the outskirts of space, with a steep learning curve for survival by their wits alone. The author successfully conveys a sense of peril as there is no one close enough to rescue them in time should anything go wrong–even a misunderstanding about the meaning of a word can upend their mission. Here several words cause trouble: shehzha, honor, and gender pronouns. The entire book hinges on Taji’s communication minefield. This does what the best scifi does, examines our own society through the lenses of alien society with social commentary on: oligarchy, figureheads, finding the balance between tradition and change, stagnation vs. innovation, rule by fear, class warfare, devaluation of skilled labor and the arts, an uneducated populace, xenophobia, and the dangers of not treating all peoples equally and equitably.
I love all the genders and skin colors represented. Taji, with a bad leg and misaligned prosthetic that hurts him, is surrounded by aliens that are larger, stronger, and not used to dealing with making accommodation for such an injury. Many IPTC like Trenne, join them to get away from societies with restrictive rules. Although Trenne is from Mirsa, he is not considered Shavian, since he is descended from conquered peoples, thus he is discriminated against due to his skin markings. This is used to good effect as how people treat them both, reflects on them. All the characters here are interesting as shown through Taji’s viewpoint whilst trying to help navigate the circumstances. The reader knows and understands them as Taji does, so as his opinion changes, so did mine. The political intrigue makes it difficult to tell friend from foe. The love story between Taji and Sargent Major Trenne is moving, explicit, and erotic. Because Taji is caring and kind, he is the heart of the book; since Trenne holds his heart, he also holds mine. Be aware that the sex also has a biological component–a chemical reaction that causes “heat” so although everything between Taji and Trenne is consensual, this could be abused like sexual slavery since it causes addiction like a drug.
This book is like the author mixed up a few of my favorite ingredients (the Claiming series by Lyn Gala, The Prince He Loved by Michael Barnette, the Breeds series by Lora Leigh, Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin) to make me a cake. Really, really good cake, but I missed the nuts. In other words, I didn’t rate it higher because the world-building was mostly political, less physical. The book didn’t paint pictures in my mind as much as I would have liked. All of it takes place in the capital or the home territory of the emperor’s family. I know there are different districts of the capital like the Gardens, or the Fires, but I don’t have a real sense of them. It’s alright, because I know some people are allergic to nuts. Althought this is a slightly darker book than I am used to by this particular author, it will be loved and read again, as I usually do with her stories. I really loved it.
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