The specification is that you, Aaron Spenser, did wilfully and unlawfully violate the Cultural Contamination Act in regards to your relationship with an inhabitant or inhabitants of the newly opened planet Henderson's IV in such a way that you have influenced -- to the good or to the bad -- all culture within their closed system forever. How say you to the specification, guilty or not guilty?
I have been more changed than they by the contact, Lieutenant Malkin.
Guilty or not guilty to the specification?
Guilty -- and not guilty, Lieutenant. (p.93)
2132 A.D.: humankind is exploring the galaxy and encountering a variety of alien races, including the might-as-well-be-human inhabitants of Henderson's IV, 'known in the common tongue as L'Lal'lor, the Planet of the Grievers'. L'Lal'lor is a matriarchal society [it was a nice change, after Xinran's Miss Chopsticks, to read a novel where mothers are pitied for bearing sons] where there is no word for love, but where the act of formal grieving has been raised to an art.
The inhabitants are suspicious of the strangers from the sky, 'the men without tears': but the arrival of the exploration party coincides with the discovery of a new Griever, Linni / the Gray Wanderer, who is assumed to be the subject of a prophecy indicating great change.
Aaron Spenser's initial investigations indicate some important differences. The males are only fertile for five years; the population comprises six 'worker' tribes and a aristocracy of Royals (tall, slim, fair of face, golden-eyed), whose byblows are brought back to the capital whenever they are found; the Royals in particular display some unsettling biological idiosyncrasies, such as increased body temperature when bonding with somebody.
Spenser, being an anthropologist, has a good working knowledge of folklore and fairy tales: he realises very quickly that singing 'Tam Lin' -- the tale of a thwarted Queen -- to the assembled nobles isn't going to go down well. He slips up anyway, with a chance remark about having nobody to grieve that leads to an impromptu re-enactment of a well-known fairytale.
But Aaron Spenser is (literally) the blue-eyed boy who can do no wrong, so he's befriended by B'oremos, the young prince who brought Linni to the capital. Cue more fairytale tropes: distortion of time (which runs faster on the ship in orbit than on the planet, due to the Hulanlocke Rotational Device), a lost child, doomed love. And yes, there is great change.
This is a short novel (remember when novels were under 200 pages long?), told from several viewpoints -- Linni, B'oremos, Aaron Spenser -- and interspersed with transcripts of traditional tales which supply context for the Grievers' social structure and traditions. The different viewpoints add dimension: it's possible to triangulate them to arrive at a more objective perception of plot and setting. (And sometimes the differences in interpretation are hilarious.)
At first I thought this was Linni's story, and it is Linni who is the pivot for events: but it's as much Spenser's story, and B'oremos who is the first of his people to understand what 'love' means. Cards of Grief isn't a cheerful tale, but it has the structure of a fairytale if not the unequivocal 'happily ever after'.