One of the things I enjoy most about delving through old books is finding the authors who were once colossi of the genre but now aren’t really talked about. CJ Cherryh is a fine example of that (for all she’s still active). Probably a bigger name in Sci-Fi than in Fantasy, and maybe a bigger name in the US than in the UK, Cherryh has written enough books, won enough awards, and has a memorable enough name that I should have heard about her before I hit my thirties anyway.
Now that I’ve found her work though, I will try to make up for lost time.
Gate of Ivrel was her first published book, a work that would now probably sit in both the Science-Fantasy and Heroic Fantasy buckets today. It features one of my favourite narrative tricks, where the PoV character isn’t the main protagonist. Our PoV character is Vanye, a noble warrior banished from his home after killing his sadistic bully of a brother (and maiming another) in a fit of terror. Alone and tired, he encounters a character from his people’s dark legends – Morgaine. A hundred years ago, she was a stranger who came and inspired the clans to disastrous war. Now she’s still alive thanks to one of the mysterious Gates. Vanye wants nothing to do with her but he is hungry and, thanks to a quirk of his people’s honour codes, she can lay claim to his loyalty. You see, Morgaine isn’t just still alive. She’s still carrying out the same mission. But where an army failed, it’s just Morgaine and Vanye.
There are two big intertwined arcs to this story. The first is their struggle against Morgaine’s enemy, the Thiye, controller of the Gate of Ivrel that Morgaine seeks to destroy. This is a fine heroic fantasy with a richly detailed world and a real sense of danger; more than once, the two have to surrender because they daren’t trust their odds in a fight. The second is Morgaine and Vanye’s friendship, a tenuous thing in the face of their mutual distrust and the stakes they’re risking, yet strong for the necessity of neither having anyone else to turn to. Cherryh manages the neat trick of making their relationship fraught without forcing them to be foolish in the name of drama. It is a great psychological journey.
Throughout, that worldbuilding underpins everything. Vanye comes from a world of strange honour codes and clan ties, a world whose history matters and can be seen in the desperate state of the people. It is mostly it’s own thing rather than any clear analogue, although echoes of feudal Japan and the popular conception of Celtic clans are obvious. It is clear enough, coherent enough, that Vanye’s and Morgaine’s choices made around that society make total sense, particularly Vanye’s internal struggle. It is compelling enough that the visit to each different clan is a joy, each a culture to their own within the greater whole.
Now, admittedly, I very rarely thought “Holy fuck this is brilliant”, but I enjoyed myself throughout. The only real lapse came at the end, which came a little fast and confusing, but it still satisfied. There is a high level of execution throughout and, for me at least, a Goldilocks level of “just right” to its elements – neither too bleak or too happy, neither too stuck in internal struggles or too ignorant of them, neither too fast or too slow. The more I think about Gate of Ivrel, the more I find myself liking it. Andre Norton compares it to Lord of the Rings in her intro and it stands the comparison to me in terms of its weight class – its gravitas, its depth, its attractiveness. Like LotR, there are elements some modern audiences will be craving that aren’t here in terms of complexity and diversity, but met on its own terms Gate of Ivrel retains a timeless sense of enchantment, adventure, and friendship.