Six months have passed since the reappearance of the starship Phoenix - the same ship which brought humans to the world of alien atevi nearly 200 years ago, leaving a small and vulnerable colony to struggle for survival in a hostile environment. During these six months, the alien atevi have striven to reconfigure their fledgling space program in a breakneck bid to take their place in the heavens alongside humans. But the return of the Phoenix has added a frighteningly powerful third party to an already volatile situation, polarizing political factions in both human and atevi societies, and making the possibility of all-out planetary war an even more likely threat.
On the atevi mainland, human ambassador Bren Cameron, in a desperate attempt to maintain the peace, has risked alienation from his own people by communicating with the staff of the Phoenix as spokesman for the atevi, and has arranged for one human representative from the Phoenix to take up residence with him in his apartments, and for another to be stationed on Mosphiera, humanity's island enclave.
Now, Bren has the difficult task of indoctrinating Jason Graham, a young man who has never before set foot on a planet, in the intricate, delicate, and potentially lethal maneuverings of the human-atevi interface. And this at a time when, thanks to the assassination of an atevi lord who had been one of Bren's primary adversaries, and the near-collision of Bren's personal plane with a jet manned by an unknown pilot, the relationship between atevi factions is becoming more strained by the minute.