C.J. Cherryh is an absolute titan of science fiction. She started writing science fiction in the 1970s, and wrote under her initials to hide that she was female…and added the “h” to the end of her real last name because her first editor thought she sounded too much like a romance writer. Despite the institutional sexism of the genre, she went on to be renowned for her world-building and her vast, thoughtful research into particularly the social sciences. In 2016, she was made a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. She’s won multiple Hugos and other awards. She even has an asteroid named after her — 77185 Cherryh! Oh yeah, and she’s written over 80 books. So it can be a little intimidating to approach the whole of the C.J. Cherryh books, but there’s definitely some entry points to aim yourself at.
Where to Start With Science Fiction C.J. Cherryh Books
Foreigner kicks off a series by that name, which follows a translator named Bren Cameron and the alien Atevi. The setup for this book is admittedly a little rough; the first couple of chapters cover the back story of how the humans got to this planet and what happened to the colonists, which is grim — and something the author herself says she only put in because her editor wanted it. But once the book and the series get rolling, and it’s all about culture clash between the humans and the first species they contact. The Atevi have an absolutely delightful and sardonic sense of humor. This is also a very long series (book 21, Divergence, came out last year) but she tends to write these in three-book arcs that you can dip in and out of.
Cyteen earned C.J. Cherryh a Hugo Award for Best Novel. It’s one entry point into her sprawling, loosely-connected Alliance/Union series, which is about Earth’s attempt at intergalactic empire falling apart due to distance and the station-bound colonies rebelling after the advent of faster-than-light travel. Cyteen itself is a runaway colony with a deliberately augmented and cloned population.
There are more than 20 novels considered to be in this series, but most were purposefully written to be read in any order, and you can read as many or as few as you like to still enjoy this massive take on Earth’s future.
Of the C.J. Cherryh books, I’m most familiar with the Chanur series, which is about the Hani, a race of cat-like aliens, and the human they’ve unaccountably decided to rescue from the Kif. This rescue puts all Hani at risk, but Pyanfar Chanur soon finds she wouldn’t trade her human for all the interstellar politics in the universe. I love the Hani as aliens (I’m weak to cat people) and there’s some great gender commentary built into the series, along with it just being plain old space opera fun. Pyanfar is also a great character; her way of dealing with politics is, “Do something totally irrational and let the enemy think himself to death.”
Rider at the Gate is the first of a duology (the second is Cloud’s Rider), which makes it the shortest series C.J. Cherryh has ever written. It’s set on an Earth-like planet called Finisterre where all of the wildlife is telepathic and tends to broadcast thoughts into human minds that drive the humans mad. What protects the humans are the nighthorses, which are aliens that happen to look like horses, who are addicted human thoughts so much that they bond with human riders. Riders and their nighthorses are the only people who can move between towns and the only thing keeping human settlements alive.
Would you rather read some fantasy?
While most C.J. Cherryh books are science fiction — and her longest series fall under that — she has written some fantasy!
This is actually an omnibus of a duology, but in that sense it’s basically standalone since it’s the only book you’ll need to buy. Set on an Earth that echoes with fairy voices even as civilization has begun to move on and drive the fae back with iron, and a new evil threatens both human and fairy worlds. Ciaran Cuilean, a man with Elvish blood, must return to the last untouched wood and put his humanity aside. There, he joined with Arafel of the Sidhe to save both the wood and humanity.
The start of a trilogy of stories based on Russian ghost and fairy stories. Set in an alternate medieval Russia, the story is about the ghost of a murdered girl who still exists by taking energy from nearby living things. Her father and the young man who loved her try to bring her back, with less than great results.
This kicks off a five book high fantasy series about magic (wizardry versus sorcery versus plain old inborn magic), politics, and warfare, all set in a quasi-medieval world. Tristen is a man brought into existence by the ancient wizard Mauryl, who has functioned as a kingmaker for a thousand years with his magic. And because of his age, Mauryl falters in Tristen’s creation, leaving him without memory, knowledge, or identity. This first book is about Tristen answering the question of who he is for himself, while a dead sorcerer tries to destroy him in order to take his corporeal form.
And if you don’t want a series, here’s a standalone fantasy novel for you as well! Betrayed by his own Emperor, Saukender is determined to leave his sword behind forever. But then a peasant girl whose family has been murdered shows up at his doorstep and demands he train her so she can have her vengeance on the man who has betrayed them both.
Looking for more SFF books written by women or nonbinary authors? Here’s 20 to get you started.