Before tackling M. C. A. Hogarth’s Kherishdar’s Exception, the fourth book in the series, potential readers should start with one of the earlier books: The Aphorisms of Kherishdar, The Admonishments of Kherishdar, or Black Blossom. The first two books are more accessible: interrelated collections of short-short stories (500 words or so). Aphorisms comprises various vignettes of Farren—a calligrapher/artist—and his interactions with customers and friends. Admonishments follows Kor, Kherishdar’s “Shame,” a traveling judge of sorts, who’s duty is to ‘correct’ rather than punish various lawbreakers. These corrections are supposed to bring the guilty back into ‘harmony with their ishas,’ (spirit) , but a lot of these corrections seem to involve ropes, whips, gags and public humiliations, so I guess one culture’s correction is another’s punishment.
The Kherishdar books feature nominally furry aliens, the Ai-Naidari. Their furriness is what the late Fred Patten would refer to as “window dressing,” i.e., the characters are described as being furry, but they don’t do anything that a human wouldn’t or couldn’t do. They’re basically human-shaped, but a bit taller, a lot thinner, with long necks, cat ears and tails.
More interesting than their appearance is their society, which is extremely hierarchical, conformist and xenophobic. It’s a world of polite people, where everyone is nice to each other, citizens are happy with their station in life, and there’s no social discord. They’re ruled by Therukedi, a benevolent, immortal emperor, who oversees a complicated social structure of Regals, Nobles, ministers, public servants and so on. There ‘s little opportunity for personal advancement—if you’re not born a Regal or Noble, you’re stuck. But it’s all good, because the Regals and Nobles take their nobeless oblige VERY seriously, and if they abuse their power they get a visit from Shame.
With a few exceptions, the world of the Ai-Naidari ‘s is very low-tech. People either walk or ride ‘beasts.’ The only real SF element are the world gates, ancient structures that allow instant passage to various colony worlds. In both Aphorisms and Admonishments there is talk of (and brief encounters with) ‘aliens,’ called aunera. They’re not described or really interacted with until the novel Black Blossom, where a group of Ai-Naidari have become ‘tainted’ by dealing with aunera, who turn out to be a small colony of humans. It’s unclear if there are any other alien species known on Kherishdar.
Kherishdar’s Exception is told in first person by the Ai-Naidari Haraa, and takes up directly after Black Blossom. Formerly a ‘Decoration’ (sort of a Geisha/courtesan that’s owned by a particular house or family) Haraa is now living in a blended household with Kor, Farren and a number of other people. She’s charged by the Emperor, Thirukedi, to learn the human’s language and society. That sounds interesting, but it mostly serves as an author soapbox to expound on the evils of abortion and the hypocrisy of making pets of some animals and eating others. The humans come off as dolts, incapable of (or unwilling to) explain the complex biological, evolutionary and the societal forces that shape human behavior.
Most of the direct human interaction is in the first part of the story, and early on it looked like things might get exciting when one of the humans is openly hostile to Haraa due to events that happened in the previous book. But she ends up making friends with him, along with the other humans she gets to know. Later on the narration shifts to Haraa’s interaction with various members of her household, including an unrequited crush on Farren (who views her as a daughter), discussions about relationships (including a gay couple who are romantically involved but don’t have sex) and ongoing conversations with the Emperor Thirukedi about the humans. When another member of the household has a baby, Haraa is so overwhelmed with baby love that she immediately decides to have one too. A male character helpfully obliges with some great sex, despite declaring in a previous volume he didn’t want children.
Only in the latter part of the book does anything external happen that throws Haraa’s ordered world into chaos, if only briefly. We find out that the Ai-Naidari are so xenophobic that they’d rather let their people die than accept any help from the human colonists, an attitude that is not really explained, particularly since the first two books had scenes with aliens being out and about (if accompanied) among them.
And what of the Exception, the title character? She is the one person among all the Ai-Naidari who has no caste or rank and can comment on society with impunity, which makes her a potentially fascinating character. Unfortunately we see her only a few times, briefly, saying some rude things that upset Haraa. Other than the Exception the most intriguing character is Therukedi, whom Haraa adores so much she’s sent into orgasmic bliss simply by his touch. This volume does answer the question about who and what the Emperor is, and gives some background on the development of their society, so if you’ve wondered about that after reading the previous books then there is some payoff.
Would I recommend any of the Kherishdar books? The Aphorisms of Kherishdar and The Admonishments of Kherishdar, yes, if only because their format and brevity keep things moving. The novels are another story (so to speak.). If you’re looking for a dynamic page-turner with action, conflict and suspense, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in a long, meandering tale about relationships, personal introspection and Ai-Naidari cultural customs, you might want to give Black Blossom and Kherishdar’s Exception a try.