Fortress of Ice by C.J. Cherryh
Review Summary: I am very disappointed in Cherryh’s latest entry to the Fortress series. It is as though she has either forgotten or is trying to re-write what occurred in the first four books of the series, not just on minor details but on some telling and very important points. In addition, it appears that she has lost her feel for the characters – no matter that 16 years of world-time have passed, she seems to have trouble recapturing the characters she so wonderfully depicted in the first four novels.
I am very disappointed in Cherryh’s latest entry to the Fortress series. It is as though she has either forgotten or is trying to re-write what occurred in the first four books of the series, not just on minor details but on some telling and very important points. In addition, it appears that she has lost her feel for the characters – no matter that 16 years of world-time have passed, she seems to have trouble recapturing the characters she so wonderfully depicted in the first four novels. Most disappointing is that she seems to be rehashing the same storyline, with similar and in some cases the same plot twists – with the difference that this time around the story isn’t nearly as compelling.
The most obvious of the author’s errors is with the character Elfwyn who was not, as everyone in the story keeps insisting, named “Elfwyn” by his mother to spite everyone. In Fortress of Dragons, it is Tristen who names the boy: “Tarien called him Maurydd, after the old wizard, I think; but Tristen said he was Elfwyn, so Elfwyn he is, now.” (232) The error is hammered home every time the boy feels sorry for himself, or bitter toward his mother, because of his name. (Although he hardly knows who the original Elfwyn was.)
The author’s treatment of the other characters is also disappointing: Paisi as a grown man has hardly any idea of the Gift at all, when before as a boy he was almost fraught with it and seemed likely to become a wizard himself of some sort. Efanor is barely in the novel, Idrys is barely mentioned, Ninevrise is quickly shuffled out of the story, and Uwen has somehow married Cook, who is likewise quickly abandoned. Emuin is missing for most of the novel, having been inexplicably absent for the last sixteen years. Other notables, and even the ordinary servants and guards, who figured into the day-to-day lives of the main characters during the earlier novels are completely missing, or mentioned by name only, and there are no other characters offered up to take their places in this latest installment. The well-addressed secondary characters were part of what made the first four books so successful, grounding the characters in a very real, ordinary world where someone has to saddle the horses, keep the accounts, and serve the meals.
As mentioned earlier of the main characters, besides Elfwyn and Aewyn whom I will discuss further below, Cherryh doesn’t seem to remember the passion and humanity she had infused in them in the earlier novels, leaving their language and thoughts stilted and out of sync with the characters we had watched mature and become wiser and warier throughout the original story. Even granted that time has passed in the world, that doesn’t account for the aching lack of the characters’ richness in this later work.
Also, the author’s allusions – made even by Tristen himself – that Tristen became a dragon at some point in the earlier novels are also strange and off-putting. I have read and re-read the novels so many times, the comment strikes me not only as incorrect, but misleading and disturbingly wrong.
The primary problem with the work plot-wise, I think, is that Cherryh has chosen to follow the two boys, Elfwyn and Aewyn as though they are the main characters, with some heavy, awkward lifting from the character of their father, Cefwyn. And so we are once again subjected, through these new eyes rather than through our familiar, seasoned characters, to ignorance of the world and ways of magic, although to an even stronger degree – for while we had in the original story met several rapidly maturing young men and women, we are going even further back in maturity with these new main characters, to the viewpoints of young boys who are young men in name only.
As such, along with poorly re-using characters from the previous novels, the author also apparently feels free to repeat certain mistakes on the part of the characters (e.g. not resisting irrational or unreasonable urges, desires or actions at the right moment, getting separated from your friends, not trusting the right people soon enough, and essentially rushing about foolishly), as well as re-using plot twists and devices we had seen in the first novel, almost as though she had forgotten that she had already used these scenes. (And how many times can a boy steal a horse from the stables or the pastures, without someone keeping a closer eye on the horses? Tristen did it once in four books, on his ride to meet Ninevrise and her father. These boys, between the two of them, have snuck a horse from the stables no less than three times in the one book.)
In regard to theme, I would have to say that the author did a very poor job of showing what her latest addition to the story was about, since I am still not sure whether she really has anything original to say with this next generation of characters. Stepping back from the actual execution of the novel, I would say that the overall idea had great potential, as a story of the royal heir and his wizardous, bastard half-brother becoming friends in a world that has known its share of political and magical strife. Also, the author seems to want to say more about the magical gifts these boys may have, that we had limited opportunity to witness in the earlier novels. Beyond the potential worth of these themes or ideas, however, the novel is sorely lacking and given its execution the story told here and (one presumes) in forthcoming novels, is probably better left to the imagination.
Unfortunately, I will still probably buy and read any forthcoming books.
Not quite as a side-note, I think it interesting that Cherryh chose to completely disregard the epilogue that appeared, almost like a “hidden track” in the paperback version (but not the later hardcover edition) of Fortress of Dragons, as a pair of letters between Tristen and Cefwyn, discussing Elfwyn. Although I will allow that an author can choose to take a story a different direction (so long as the author doesn’t change previously stated events), those letters indicated a thoughtful look at a potential future, with Tristen and Emuin taking a more firm hand in Elfwyn’s development after a minor indiscretion on the boy’s part. With the epilogue, I was completely satisfied imagining the future of this world, and did not expect any further works to be published. Perhaps the most satisfying element of the letters was the richness of the character’s personalities, mellowed by several more years of age and friendship. These letters, I thought, would be the prelude to Fortress of Ice.