C.J. Cherryh,
Fortress in the Eye of Time
(EOS/HarperCollins, 1995)
Fortress of Eagles
(EOS/HarperCollins, 1998)
Fortress of Owls
(HarperPrism, 1999)
Fortress of Dragons
(EOS/HarperCollins, 2000)

I read somewhere that C.J. Cherry called the Fortress series the book she had always wanted to write. We can be glad she took the time to do it -- it is an exceptional fantasy, marked by the Cherryh blend of intrigue, politics, complex, layered plot and sharply realized characters, and graced by Cherryh's own masterful prose. For those familiar with Cherryh's other novels, the density in this one is not a density of events but a density of sensation and growth.

Fortress is one of the most remarkable coming-of-age stories I have ever read. Tristen, which is the only name he will own, is a wizard's Summoning and Shaping, created of fire and necessity in the dark of a spring night by Mauryl Gestaurien, the Kingmaker, Kingsbane, the oldest and greatest of wizards and quite possibly the last of the fabled race of the Galasieni -- the last who still lives. Although Tristen is born as a youth, nearly a full-grown man, he is completely innocent -- a blank slate, he remembers some things (they Unfold to him as he encounters them), but most things are completely new and wonderful.

Mauryl is not the gentlest of masters, and his patience is often worn thin by the antics of a boy to whom every experience is fascinating. They live in Ynefel, a ruined tower full of legends, Shadows and faces in the walls. Tristen has lessons, duties and a purpose, although this last is a mystery; all that Mauryl will say in that regard is that he may have to leave unless Tristen learns to read a particular Book. Tristen puzzles over the Book, with no guidance from Mauryl, but is unsuccessful in this task before disaster strikes: a Wind comes, a Wind that has tried to suborn Tristen before, and, in a night of terror, the tower is shattered, Tristen barely escapes with his gifts from Mauryl (the Book, a razor and a silver mirror), and Mauryl joins the faces in the walls. Following Mauryl's instructions, Tristen sets off on the Road, which leads him eventually to Henas'amef, capital of the province of Amefel in the Kingdom of Ylesuin and current residence of Prince Cefwyn, heir to the throne and his father's Viceroy.

Amefel is a restive province, ruled by a treacherous duke whose adherence to his oaths is generally a matter of convenience or price, with closer ties to neighboring Elwynor than to Ylesuin (which does not share in the mixed blood and ancient religion of the West and South). There is civil war in Elwynor, which is only too likely to spill over the bordering Lenualim River and bring chaos to Ylesuin. There is more than mere human struggle behind the shadows on the horizon, something of which few are aware.

Cherryh has done something in the Fortress series that she has done before: Fortress in the Eye of Time, the first volume, could in may respects stand alone, and would be a competent, if relatively shallow, fantasy adventure. Tying up loose ends really depends on further development of the story, new revelations, new characters. Cherryh has introduced those revelations, developed characters, complicated the plot and built a story that is impressive in its achievement. That the mix includes a heady blend of politics, deception and intrigue goes without saying -- this is, after all, a story by C.J. Cherryh. And, as in any substantial work of art, there is a great deal here -- or, if you prefer an alternative view, she has built a mirror that can reflect a wide range of the reader's own themes back at him.

One reflection is the role of religion and religious institutions in politics, a theme that has taken increasing prominence in SF in the past 20 years. The Quinalt is what amounts to a state religion in Ylesuin, although in theory under at least nominal limits in a realm that has three major sects and, like so many institutions, seeks nothing so much as unlimited power, a tendency that is put to good use by some of the less honorable among Cefwyn's barons, notably the reprehensible Corswyndam of Ryssand and the equally detestable if somewhat less intelligent Prichwarrin of Murandys. That Cefwyn is the third Marhanen king of Ylesuin, a dynasty and kingdom that were created by his grandfather's betrayal of the Sihhe High Kings (of whom Tristen may be the first, reborn) only complicates matters: a dynasty that came to power through treachery can easily be replaced by treachery, particularly with the blessings of the Church. Such matters as the use of religion as a means to power by the unscrupulous blend seamlessly into consideration of the question of good and evil, which Tristen tries desperately to understand, although it is not until the climax that he really has an inkling, simply because the question, framed in the Quinalt's terms, misses the point. One can very easily take this as Cherryh's rather acid comment on so much of contemporary "morality."

Of larger import is the impending war: on the mundane level apparent to magic-blind Cefwyn and his general/chief adviser Idrys, it is a matter of conflict between men and states. To Tristen, Emuin (the wizard who becomes Tristen's surrogate for Mauryl, the only father he has ever known) and Ninevrise (Lady Regent of Elwynor in exile, daughter of a line with the Sihhe blood and wizard gift and Cefwyn's betrothed), all of whom are aware of magic and wizardry, there is a greater and darker force behind the deeds of men.

It is ultimately Tristen who realizes the depth and malevolence of the real mover in these events, an entity that only he is capable of meeting as an equal. The war between Elwynor and Ylesuin becomes the war between Tristen and the Enemy and collapses "war" from the saleable idea of political necessity into a reflection of a basic and enduring scar on human nature.

One fascinating aspect of the series is the way Cherryh has drawn relationships. It is a romantic view, in that there is a certain human magic involved, but it meshes very well with some aspects of Jungian psychology: there is a strong element of the erotic in its widest sense, that sense of connection that is not quite sexual but reaches very deep and helps to define and structure relationships, particularly among men. (There are three female characters of any substance, two of whom are not of any real importance until the final volume.) One can even make a case for Tristen, Cefwyn and other men fitting neatly into complementary Jungian archetypes. The intensity of these friendships, marked by a deep and abiding love, is something that has often been a subtext in fantasy literature, but has seldom been acknowledged outside the portrayal of overtly sexual liaisons -- and not often successfully in that context -- and provides a breathtaking contrast with the relative poverty of relationships among men in what we are pleased to call "real life."

Cherryh's use of magic, wizardry and sorcery illustrates the manner in which magic in fantasy helps to define the created universe. In Cherryh's hands, there is wizardry -- a thing of charts, numbers and precise counting, more or less the technology of magic, as exemplified by Emuin; there is sorcery, or wizardry gone bad, as reflected in the dead wizard Hasufin Heltain, Mauryl's student and enemy since the days of Galasien, who is an aspect of the Enemy against whom Tristen was created; and there is magic, innate, undisciplined, a wild talent that works outside the constraints recognized by men: this is Tristen, as it was his predecessors among the Sihhe, who recognized no boundaries of time and space but rather understood on a visceral level that all things are one, the key concept in making magic work. That some of the most important characters -- Owl (a surly bird who becomes Tristen's guide), Auld Syes (a capricious but reliable ally), Hasufin and the Enemy himself -- are creatures of Shadow adds yet another dimension to these categories.

Finally, there is Tristen. I called this a "coming-of-age story," and it truly is. Tristen begins, in almost all respects, as a child. He is a good-hearted child with an earnest desire to please those around him, who attempts to be well-behaved and polite, but whose energy and boundless curiosity -- and devastating honesty -- sometimes get the better of him, to the despair of his elders. His growth is subtle; one realizes eventually that Tristen, while still trying to please those who are important to him, at some point makes the transition from doing it because it was what he was taught to doing it because he wants to. And, in growing up, he has come to understand who he is and that he is as much of his own making as he is of Mauryl's. By the end of the first volume, it is clear to Tristen at least that he was meant to be the reincarnation of the bloody-handed warlord Barraketh, the first and most fearsome of the Sihhe; what brings Tristen's development into sharp focus is his insistence that he is only Tristen and no one else: as he declares at one point in Fortress of Owls, "some say I am Sihhe and some say I was Barraketh. That may be. But I say my name is Tristen, and while I say so, not even a wizard's wish can turn me to any other creature."

That he happens to be one of the most lovable characters in fantasy literature is only a bonus. Tristen is a portrait of innocence that Cherryh seems to have been developing over time, a character type she has come back to frequently. (This innocence, by the by, has nothing to do with naivete.)

As one might expect from Cherryh, the universe-building is flawless and the prose is seductive. Dialogue, always a particular strength of Cherryh's, is remarkable: diction ranges from near-Shakespearean (some passages between Cefwyn and Idrys, in particular, ring on the ear with the same sound as the Bard's comedies) to deftly handled dialect that recalls, perhaps, the rural Shropshire of A.E. Housman or the Dublin of Jamie O'Neill. Narrative is rich and highly colored, seamlessly encompassing development within description. This is not to say that the series is perfect: there are passages, in particular Tristen's encounters with the Enemy and his own introspections, that are tinged with purple and could easily have been more concise to better effect. And that Lord Ryssand keeps his head as long as he does appears as much a device to keep the story going as a product of Cefwyn's character. (It would have been interesting to see how the story developed if Corswyndam had gotten his just desserts early on -- perhaps the Quinalt would have become the villain; it's certainly a prime candidate.)

There are many grace-notes that build depth and reality: that Earl Crissand, the foremost noble of Amefel under Tristen's administration, can talk knowledgeably about apple orchards and the husbandry of sheep; that Tristen remembers the walls of Ynefel with their trapped faces and shifting Shadows, a matter of dark foreboding to most, as a place of security and comfort; that Cefwyn starts feeding the pigeons, one of Tristen's favorite occupations, after Tristen's necessary exile from Guelessar. These all add to the density and richness of the story.

In the canon of C.J. Cherryh's work, or of fantasy literature in general, the Fortress series is a high point. Although flawed, the shortcomings are very easy to forgive: richly textured, by turns subtle and plain, evocative and incisive, it is well worth the time spent, and one may very well find, coming back to it again, that some new magic unfolds.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 28 August 2004

Buy Fortress in the Eye of Time from Amazon.com.

Buy Fortress of Eagles from Amazon.com.

Buy Fortress of Owls from Amazon.com.

Buy Fortress of Dragons from Amazon.com.