claustrophobic but cool
C.J. Cherryh is the the author of numerous suspenseful science fiction and fantasy novels. Her heroes and heroines are generally to be found in stressful, claustrophobic situations, threatened at every turn. Often the danger is in part due to their own weaknesses. Many of her characters are extremely talented in some way, but ill-equiped to cope with the crises they are presented with.
C.J. Cherryh's books tend to have complex backgrounds and political situations, about which she (as author) tells the reader remarkably little. One must read carefully, and piece things together as the book goes on. As a result, her books often make more sense on a second reading. She is quite good at making the reader feel as uneasy as her characters.
I like Cherryh's work quite a bit, but I confess I need to be in the right mood. This is not light reading.
Perhaps the best introduction to her work is the Chanur series, which starts with The Pride of Chanur. Pyanfar Chanur is the captain of a trading ship, The Pride of Chanur, which travels between the worlds of the Compact, a loose confederation of spacefaring races. Pyanfar is a Hani, a vaguely feline race. Only female Hani are allowed into space; male Hani tend to be simple-minded and short-tempered.
During an otherwise normal stay at a space station, Pyanfar acquires a stowaway--a human named Tully, from outside of the Compact. He is the sole survivor of the first Terran ship to reach Compact space. Pyanfar, her crew, and eventually the whole compact are plunged into turmoil as the Kif try to get Tully back. The series continues in Chanur's Venture, The Kif Strike Back (never propose a title as a joke, says Cherryh), and concludes in Chanur's Homecoming. A related book, Chanur's Legacy, concerns Hilfy Chanur, one of Pyanfar's crewmembers in the earlier books.
Many of Cherryh's books are set in the Union-Alliance universe. The premise is this: Earth sent out many ships to explore and settle the galaxy; these ships built stations around various stars. In time, a merchant fleet developed, and there were three kinds of people in Terran space. Terrans, stationers, and merchanters. The merchange ships were home to their crew. Eventually, "jump technology" was developed, and the time it took to traverse the stars was reduced greatly. Stations were built further and further from Earth, where planets and other raw materials were found, and the stations close to Earth were abandoned. The stationers and the merchanters grew to resent Earth control, and the Company Wars started, merchanters against Earth's Fleet. Some of the Fleet ships became little better than pirates. (It was about this time, incidentally, that Earth sent a ship in the opposite direction, into Compact space). Eventually, the Merchanter's Alliance won free of Earth altogether.
Even further from Earth, another culture was forming, around the planet of Cyteen. This was the Union, a culture of integrated planet dwellers, stationers, and spacers founded on advanced reproductive technology and tape-training of cloned embryos. At best, Union and Alliance coexist uneasily; at worst, they are at war.
Few of the Union-Alliance novels are directly related; rather, they tend to explore different times and places in Union-Alliance history, ranging from the Solar System to Cyteen itself. The best of them is also Cherryh's best work, and one of the best science fiction novels of all time: Cyteen. One of the few novels to take place in the Union itself, it concerns a crisis of leadership at Reseune, the Union city-state responsible for the Union's birthlabs technology. Ariane Emory, the head of Reseune, and one of the most influential people in the entire Union, has been murdered. But what if her clone could be raised to replace her...perfectly? It's an old idea, but Cherryh does a truly outstanding job. This is not the earliest book on how to raise a clone so that her environment exactly matched that of her parent, so that she could replace her parent, but it's by far the best. And on top of that, Cherryh describes the complex politics of Reseune and Union over many decades. Highly recommended.
Other books in the Union-Alliance universe include Downbelow Station, Merchanter's Luck, and Rimrunners.
I won't go into detail about Cherryh's other books (e.g., the Morgaine novels, which I read recently) except to say that the only book of hers that I really didn't like and didn't get through was Rusalka. Perhaps it got better, I don't know.
Titles, by Series
Chanur (Union/Alliance subseries):
Rider at the Gate:
Fortress in the Eye of Time
The Faded SunSupposedly these books take place very far down the Union/Alliance time line; practically speaking, there's little that connects them.