Spoiler Alert: Read The Refugee and The Operative before reading these notes. There are no spoilers for The Forbidden Planet.
You may recall the Derovian art that Eshel bought for Catherine on their trip to Mellon. She’d had her eye on a few pieces but couldn’t decide, so Eshel contrived to buy it for her on the sly and surprise her when they returned to Cornelia. When Eshel ended things with her and treated her so coldly, Catherine, pained and infuriated, donated the piece to the Free Box. Later, when she and Eshel mended their relationship, she felt tremendous regret and spent the bulk of Book 2 trying everything she could to get it back before finally admitting defeat.
This piece of art is important because it serves as a symbol of Catherine and Eshel’s relationship. When she comes aboard Cornelia and hangs her photos, leaving one open bulkhead space for something special obtained offworld, this is a metaphor for an empty place in Catherine, to be eventually filled by Eshel. When they sealed their closeness by going to Mellon and performing the sher keltar, Eshel selects the art and hangs it in the empty spot, where even he mentioned that it fit perfectly.
When Eshel dumped Catherine with a chilliness of which only Eshel is capable, leaving her even emptier than when he found her, the art served as a reminder of her perceived foolishness so she jettisoned the piece, leaving the spot open once more.
In The Operative (Book 2), Catherine, feeling regret over her decision to get rid of the art and thus the reminder of Eshel, tries everything she knows to get it back: enlisting Tom’s help, Yamamoto’s help, even pretending to offer the piece for sale at the Free Box to see if it would generate any leads. Nothing worked.
And why would it? In Book 2, Catherine and Eshel’s relationship is a more distant one, obstructed by Eshel’s fear of putting her in danger and Catherine’s new role as COO and the secrets she must keep. Although not talked about directly, Catherine and Eshel also face deeper fears, where the former feared being hurt again by someone she believes will leave her in the long run, and the latter still grappling with having violated the customs of his people. Barriers to their relationship, barriers in getting that art back where it belongs.
Moreover, her relationship with Mahoney only serves as another blockade for her and Eshel, but Mahoney is much like the photos she fills the space with: a delightful replacement, but–for better or for worse–not Eshel.
At the end of Book 2, as Catherine’s fury rises upon finding out that Eshel left for Suna without saying goodbye to her in person, she returns to find the Derovian art returned to its place of honor among her photos. This could be construed several ways. I’ll let you read The Forbidden Planet and decide that for yourself.
Interestingly, Eshel chose an abstract piece. The Korvali are not especially artistic, and Eshel is one to speak literally rather than in metaphor, so you could almost imagine him buying a more straightforward landscape or portrait. Yet, the blue-green reflects the colors of his homeworld and the “coolness” of their temperaments, and the mottled abstract design could perhaps reflect his mysteriousness and complexity.
You may wonder how came up with the idea of the art symbolizing Catherine and Eshel’s relationship. The truth is, I didn’t. It wrote itself. It wasn’t until I was mostly done with Book 1 that I realized what was going on, and even now I still make discoveries. When you write from that deeper place, stuff like that arises on its own.