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I read a novel years back about a human serving a predatory alien race. The aliens have an almost uncontrollable temper, and prestige is gained or lost by success in pushing adversaries almost to the brink of lashing out. The human character (ETA: who is a high-ranking slave to one of these aliens) takes risks by playing this game, which his instincts are not well suited to. At one point, his master warns him of the risks he’s taking: he’s not wired to recognize when he’s pushing too hard.

It feels like something by C. J. Cherryh, and it might be, except I can’t find the book again.

(This is not one of the Chanur books about the hani; and it’s not Hestia.)

ETA: I’m pretty sure that both genders are represented among the aliens; if my recollection is correct, this would rule out the kzin.

Second edit: I’d originally written “feline”, but the species is not cat-like, merely predatory.

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    There may not be enough here to ID a particular story. There are several stories with this theme of closely related ones amung the many tales of the Man-Kzin wars. – dmckee Mar 20 '12 at 0:46
  • I was going to suggest maybe something with Kzin as well – Xantec Mar 20 '12 at 13:51
  • Some comments have suggested something in the Man-Kzin Wars series. That’s a possibility, but is there a novel in that set in which a fundamental feature of the alien culture is keeping control of one’s temper? Also, none of the stories mentioned at <http://www.larryniven.net/kzin/reviews.shtml> remotely match what I’m describing. – J. C. Salomon Mar 20 '12 at 16:40
  • I seem to recall a similar idea showing up in the Legacy of the Aldenata Series by John Ringo. – Donald.McLean Mar 23 '12 at 18:21
  • The only thing I can find is this: Chanur's End game, in a review on amazon it mentions Pyanfur's Cross species brinkmanship. – AncientSwordRage Mar 24 '12 at 8:59
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Found it: I don’t know why I mis-remembered that the species is cat-like (I think I may have conflated them with the hani), but I found the exact scene that had stuck in my mind.

The species is the iduve from C. J. Cherryh’s Hunter of Worlds; an excerpt from the scene I remembered follows:

  She drew breath: when she went on it was in a calmer voice. “Rakhi could not reprimand my kameth in my presence; I could not do so in theirs. And there you stood, gambling with the five of us in the mistaken confidence that your life was too valuable for me to waste. Were you iduve, I should say that was an extremely hazardous form of vaikka. Were you iduve, you would have lost that game. But because you are m’metane, you were allowed to do what an iduve would have died for doing.”
  “And is iduve pride that vulnerable?”
  “Stop challenging me!
  It was a cry of anguish. Chimele herself looked terrified, reminding him for all the world of an essentially friendly animal being provoked beyond endurance, a creature teased to the point of madness by some child it loved, shivering with taut nerves and repressed instincts. She could not help it, as an animal could not resist a move from its prey.
  Vaikka.
  He grasped it then—a game that was indeed for iduve only, a name that shielded a most terrifying instinct, one that the iduve themselves must fear, for it tore apart all their careful rationality. […] A kallia quite literally did not have a nervous system attuned to that kind of conflict. A kallia would want to play the game part of the way and then quit before someone was hurt; but there was a point past which the iduve could not quit.

ETA: And it seems I misremembered another thing: Aiela is kallia, not human; though he’s been telepathically linked to a human.

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This sounds like "The Faded Sun" trilogy. By Cherryh, as you suggest.

  • No cat-like aliens in The Faded Sun though... – Melita Kennedy Mar 23 '12 at 22:43
  • Really? I always thought of the Mri as cat like. It's a while since I've read it, and it may just have been the name that suggested that to me. Wikipedia suggests (without attribution) that they have pointed ears, yellow eyes, and hair resembling a lynx, which confirms my suspicions. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mri_%28fictional_alien_species%29 – Christi Mar 24 '12 at 11:11
  • The cover image of the Daw editions (img1.fantasticfiction.co.uk/images/n0/n3979.jpg) seems to be misleading in this respect, as it portrays Melein (a Sen) as humanoid. It also shows her holding a sword, and although I can't remember specifics this seems like a very un-Sen thing to do. – Christi Mar 24 '12 at 12:08
  • It has been a while since I read the Faded Sun books! I can't remember that Duncan played games of brinkmanship though. Maybe a re-read is in order... – Melita Kennedy Mar 24 '12 at 23:33
  • Interesting thought, given what I’d remembered, but I own The Faded Sun and re-read it recently. Not it; and I’ve added some more details to my question. Thanks, though! – J. C. Salomon Mar 25 '12 at 1:30

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