C.J. Cherryh,
Arafel's Saga
(Daw, 1983)

Long have I been haunted by a song on a filk recording. The disc is Freedom, Flight, and Fantasy, and the track is called "Arafel's Lament." I first heard this song about eight years ago -- perhaps more -- and I really wanted to read the book it had come from, so imagine my delight when I found it at the local newspaper's big book sale event. Here I had the whole tale in its entirety, both The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels are contained in this hardcover volume -- and I'd only known about the latter -- all for $2.00 (Canadian, of course).

These novels deal with Celtic myth, and most especially the tale of the last of the elves. Arafel guards a remaining portion of the great forest of Eald which once covered the entire Earth, but now is reduced to a much smaller state. In the heart of Ealdwood she lives, guarding the trees where her people hung their swords and jewels as they faded from our world. Humans and their much despised iron brought about the downfall of the elves, and Arafel, for the most part, has as little to do with them as possible. She is the last of her kind, and seeks only to protect the forest which remains and keep the humans from killing off its magic.

This all changes when a human ventures into the Ealdwood, and Arafel finds herself giving aid instead of death. Niall Dublachan is an outcast, awaiting the time when the king's child will be able to rightfully take his throne. Niall was once a warrior for the king, but the king was murdered and his supporters killed and scattered. Arafel helps Niall, sending him to a haven, Beorc's Steading, where all wounded creatures come for aid if they are able. It is a place between times and it heals the spirit with its own brand of magic. Niall is content, but the world is not ready for him to rest in such a peaceful place.

When the true King begins to fight for his crown, Niall is unwillingly forced to return to his old life and his old companions. King Evald is not what Niall had hoped for or desired in a king, though. Dark things begin to creep into the world again under his rule, and Arafel is drawn into the battle. She find herself unable to just sit back and allow humans to fall to their own fate, and most especially not Niall.

A war begins, a war which is still fought years later by different men and women, the descendants of Niall and King Evald. A war which threatens to bring about the end of the world, and the destruction of Ealdwood itself. Arafel cannot allow this to happen, and involves herself much deeper than she had ever thought she would, even more so when she finds out the true nature of the evil she must face.

Visit a world of magic; war-torn as it is, there is still much brightness as we are carried along on a bittersweet wave of the author's devising. This is the end of magic in the world of humans, the end of the elves, and a sad fate it is. Not only has Arafel outlasted the others of her kind, but also the human folk she has cared about. She has watched them die, as she barely ages, and the parting is one which makes lasting impressions upon her. Arafel, who knows Lord Death to speak with, is saddened by the fate of these briefly lived humans and will give even her own life to save those she cares about from the horrid fate awaiting them all.

This is an epic tale of magic and adventure, and one which I would recommend to those who like anything to do with the Fair Folk of legend. It is not another vapid, bright and cheerful tale, but one of cold harsh reality -- as painful as iron is to the elves.

[ by Naomi de Bruyn ]

Visit C.J. Cherryh's website.