Gate of Ivrel, CJ Cherryh (1976)
Review by Adam Roberts
I’ve tried reading Cherryh’s SF before and, to use the pinball idiom favoured of SF fandom, I “bounced off her, hard”. I think what put me off was an, as it seemed to me, old-fashioned trudginess about the whole: clogged, under-visualised and in some cases apparent interminability. I bogged down in Downbelow Station, said ciao! no to the myriad Chanur books, and having taken it out of the library I came to the conclusion that a lifetime was not sufficient time, and eternity barely long enough, to read the whole of Cyteen. This, I should add, is not merely a matter of length: I have read many books that were longer than hers. It was something to do with (what seemed to me) a painful slowness, indeed a drabness, about the telling.
Lately I’ve tried again: this time with her “Fantasy” series The Chronicles of Morgaine, and her first published novel, Gate of Ivrel. And to my surprise I very much enjoyed it. The story is simple: a High Fantasy world of horselords and peasants, mountains and plains has an in-effect supernatural layer of strange creatures, immortal wizards and amazing weaponry, courtesy of a network of high-tech “Gates”, set up in “the unimaginable past” as (we assume) teleportation of hyperspace portals, but now decayed into strange and dangerous loopholes into a mode of chaos. The story starts with young warrior Vanye in a tight spot: his father is king, but he is a bastard, and his two legitimate brothers have bullied and tormented them all his life. Finally they assault him with swords, and in defending himself, he kills one brother and maims the other. He is banished, disgraced, and declared “ilin”. According to the exacting code of honour of this world, “ilin” are…
… criminals, or clanless, or unclaimed bastards, and some religious men doing penance for some particular sin, bound in virtual slavery according to the soul-binding law of the ilin odes, to serve for a year at their Claiming. (p 23)
Vanye is claimed by Morgaine – the titular protagonist, a remnant from the ancient past. She was last seen on this world a century earlier. Since then she’s been hiding inside one of the gates (or something: it’s not entirely clear) after she led a disastrous military campaign against the northern kingdom of Hjemur. Her aim was to destroy the Gates, but she failed and thousands died. Now her name has positively witchy and indeed diabolic connotations: and though she calls herself human others class her as “qhal”, the race that built the Gates in the backward and abyss of time, and a word that now effectively means something like “dark elf”.
The High Fantasy tropes are laid out with respectful fidelity, which leads us perhaps into over-familiarity. Once Morgaine has claimed Vanye she binds him to a promise to help her destroy Hjemur, or if she dies to destroy it himself. Miserable, filled with superstitious terror in her presence, he is nonetheless bound so strictly by his honour code that he cannot deny her. Thereafter they go on a long quest, which entails trouble with monstrous creatures very much not referred to as orcs in the mountains, a sojourn in an Old English style horselord keep where the king is being secretly controlled by a weird mage behind his back, time in a monastery where their hurts are healed, treks past evil-haunted lakes, through dangerous forests, across great plains and to a final big showdown on the flanks of an evil mountain, the Ivrel, which is where the Boss Gate, that rules all the other gates, is to be found. The purpose of this quest is to destroy not a magic ring of power with charmed letters written upon it, but a completely different artefact: a magic sword of power with charmed letters written upon it. Bunging this sword through a gate will do the job, we’re told:
“I will tell thee,” [Morgaine] said softly, “if something befall me, it could be that thee would need to know. Thee does not need to read what is written on the blade. But it is the key. Chan wrote it upon the blade for fear that all of us would die, or that it would come to another generation of us – hoping that with that, Ivrel still might be sealed. It is to be used at Rahjemur, if thee must: its field directed at its own source of power would effect the ruin of all the Gates here. Or cast back within the Gate itself, the true Gate, it would be the same: unsheathe it and hurl it through.” (p 161)
Those rather Yorkshire-sounding ‘thees’ are how Cherryh marks Morgaine as coming from a past age of the world in which she moves. It took some getting used to, for me (Cherryh is an expert Latinist, and taught the language for many years, so she knows the difference between a ‘thee is’ and a ‘thou art’; but she insists on using the former idiom the whole way through her novel. Ah well). At the mountain they meet the Evil One, Liell – the evil counsellor they met earlier, who has been preserving himself ever-young by periodically glomming his spirit into younger bodies, with the help of the power of the Gates. He almost succeeds in doing this with Vanye, and finally does do it with another of their companions, Chya Roh, meaning that for the end of the book and, I assume, in its sequels he is the series’ Sauron. He escapes. “How?” I hear you ask: “does Roh row row his boat gently down the stream?” No. He hops through the Boss Gate. Morgaine goes after him. Determined to get back at Chya.
Now, emphasising the simplicity and (we can be honest) derivativeness of this story, as I am doing here, does not capture the flavour of reading the novel. It’s true there is something old-fashioned about the way she puts her story together: for good and ill, but the ‘good’ of it is not to be sniffed at. It feels slightly effortful, working one’s way through; but this effort correlates quite well to a world in which life is hard, travel slow and dangerous, and the (mark the scare quotes, I prithee) “reality” of pre-industrial-revolution life is scrupulously worked through and attended to. Cherryh observes this almost to a fault: Morgaine and Vanye are repeatedly waylaid, ambushed, tricked, imprisoned and so on; which kept un-suspending my disbelief – Morgaine, after all, carries with her not only the lightning-shooting by-the-power-of-grayskull Wonder Sword (She! Has! The Power!), but also a small handgun-sized laser or phaser or somesuch device. The former makes enemies disappear altogether; the latter slices through flesh like butter. It’s a little hard to see why she almost never uses them.
Cherryh’s style is brisk, almost terse. Her descriptions are nugatory and the backstory clots those portions when it is discussed with unexplained names and heritages and a welter of opaque references. Yet there are several things about this novel that work powerfully well. One has to do precisely with the style, actually: its very terseness stands in astringent and welcome contrast with the bloaty, weightless blather of so much contemporary Fantasy – padded like a stuffed mattress with pointless conversations and interminable descriptions of landscape, clothes, food served at table, military tactics and so on. There’s something pleasingly to-the-point about the way Cherryh writes; and if I sometimes found myself wrongfooted or baffled, well the upside there was the way that bafflement enhanced the estrangement of the built world. The exacting and sometimes counter-intuitive honour code of the world added to this; the kinship alliances and hostilities, the hierarchies and protocols. The drabness of her approach happens to suit a world defined by a kind of punishing drabness of climate and society.
But at the heart of the success of this novel is the central relationship: beautiful, ageless Morgaine – ruthless and unswerving, but in a noble aim; handsome, capable, muscular Vanye, sworn to serve her in everything. It is what my friend Justina Robson aptly calls “a fit bloke fantasy”, and Cherryh makes it work by with-holding most of the romantic satisfactions her readership might otherwise expecting. At any rate, when Morgaine releases Vanye from his oath at the end and rides into the Gate in pursuit of the evil Chya Roh – and, of course, Vanye turns his back on his world to follow her – it’s surprisingly affecting. The story continues in 1978’s Well of Shiuan, which I shall now read.