Ring of Swords
Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnasson [Orb/Tom Doherty Assoc, 1993 -- 364 pages]
It is the late 21st Century, and humanity is busy exploring the far reaches of space looking for habitable planets in the hope of escaping a polluted and overcrowded Earth. They are also looking for other intelligent life. They find the latter in the form of the fur-covered humanoid hwarhath. They seemed at first to be perfectly matched to humanity: aggressive, technologically advanced, and eager to go to war with the first thing they met.
Or so they seemed.
The story follows two characters. Anna Perez is a xenobiologist studying a jellyfish-like native species on an inconsequential planet on the fringes of human explored space. It is just her luck that the Earth military chooses her outpost for the first face-to-face meeting between the species. Nicholas Sanders is a human who comes with the hwarhath to the diplomatic negotiations, acting as willing translator and advisor to the great surprise of the Earth military. He was one of their own who was lost during a skirmish with the aliens years earlier. The novel follows the course of the negotiations, first on the planet and later on a space station built by the hwar specifically for the purpose.
It is essentially a mystery story, with the major question at hand being what the aliens' intentions really are and what Nicholas has to do with them. Ms. Arnasson's writing style takes a little getting used to, as she tends to vary widely the length of the chapters and the format of the POV being presented. For the first quarter of the book we only hear Nicholas's view in the form of recorded personal diary entries, with overlaid comments from the hwar First-Defender to whose staff he is assigned, Ettin Gwarha. It took me a bit of time to adjust, but once I did I found her writing style to be lively and engaging.
Over the course of the novel, Ms. Arnasson excels at portraying the alien culture in a way that makes them seem vastly different from what we consider "moral and decent", only to turn the reader's perceptions back on themselves as the story develops. The effect was like being in a dark room with something you think is terrifying, only to have its true nature revealed in the slow light of the approaching dawn. The hwarhath never lose their alien natures, but by the end of the novel you find yourself understanding their world, and viewing humanity differently because of it.
If I were to sum up "Ring of Swords" in one word, it would probably be "heady". It is exceedingly complex, yet simple in its emotional truths and societal theories. It is a highly recommended read, and is still readily available through online distribution channels.