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The book is presented as the transcripts of recordings of conversations. Some of the conversations were recorded surreptitiously during the observation-only phase of the mission, and some were recorded with the permission of the natives.
The transcriptions are of conversations on the planet known as the Planet of the Grievers. The culture centers entirely on death and grieving for those who have died. Grieving is considered an art form, and celebrating the life of a loved one who has died is done with songs, poems, stories, and art. The people are not constantly unhappy because of this - it is simply the main ritual in their lives; however, they have not developed humor.
The planet has two races of intelligent beings that can interbreed. Once race is less numerous, and are known as royals. They rule the planet. The other race essentially makes up with working class in the feudal society.
During the transcriptions, we learn that during the travels of Prince B'oremos, he discovered a woman, Lina-Lania, of royal lineage (living with a common family) that is an exceptionally gifted griever. He brings her back to the royal court, where she becomes the Queen's Own Griever.
The human observers finally decide to make first contact. Events proceed peacefully. The anthropologist with the team, Aaron Spenser, eventually falls in love with Lina-Lania. The remaining transcriptions detail how Lina-Lania eventually has his child, which he raises, his trial for interfering with the native culture, and how he eventually decides to live on the planet and never return to Earth. However, he is only able to return to the planet after Lina-Lania has become elderly, and so he can never really have a long-term relationship with her. The eponymous "Cards of Grief" were mourning art created by Aaron's daughter when he died.
The author did a good job of creating a convincing alien culture. The physical description of the aliens was very incomplete, so one doesn't really know how alien they look. However, I suppose that if a human would fall in love with one and have a child, they must be pretty similar to humans. The idea of centering the culture on grief seems like it would be depressing, but it wasn't really. The depressing idea was that so many of the people would decide to take the Cup of Sleep and kill themselves whenever they thought the situation required it.
I have a hard time describing what I felt was missing from the book. I suppose that I think that only "transcribing" the conversations or descriptions of key events leaves out a lot of details that would have made me care more about the characters. The events surrounding Lina-Lania are tragic, but I feel that more in a clinical sense rather than having an emotional involvement in it.