Rusalka by C.J. Cherryh
1989, Del Rey
Review Summary: Rusalka is a very worthwhile novel, with some themes shown later, differently, and perhaps even better in her later Fortress series, but I am definitely looking forward to t he next chapter of this series.
This is another book I had to go find because I had accidentally picked up the second book in the series from Uncle Hugo’s, rather than the first as I had originally thought. Fortunately, it is Cherryh, so I knew it would be worth any extra little trouble I had to go through – I have liked everything I’ve read from this author, and my shelves have far more of her novels than those by any other author. In other words, if you’re looking for an unbiased review of Cherryh, I’m not sure I can provide it – I’ve consistently liked her body of work enough that she would really have to ruin a story for me to be overly critical.
Having said that Cherryh has yet to write anything I don’t like, I am willing to admit that some of her novels are more successful at accomplishing the apparent goal of the story than others. Rusalka is a novel just at the cusp of this, in my opinion.
Cherryh does an excellent job of giving the story a gloss of a different setting and culture, as I have seen her do in other books, such as The Paladin and Angel With The Sword, without having to go too in-depth into the details of the culture – just enough to give the story a different feel. At least in the beginning, this is the case, giving the land enough of a feel of a medieval Russia for me to more easily get into the spirit of the different mythological creatures presented; the rusalkas and leshys and rustic wizards. Unfortunately, the gloss fades rather quickly once the main characters spin out and away from the main civilization, and the setting quickly devolves as the characters enter a culture-generic, old, dead forest that could be set almost anywhere. The naming conventions are a good reminder that this is supposed to be a book set in a different culture as well, but I missed the early feel of the novel later on.
Her description of magic – as a force of will, wishes, and discipline by those born with the talent – is familiar to me from her later Fortress series, but in this earlier novel she’s taken this wishing down an interesting and different path. In a world where a magician can will something to be, and where if their will is strong enough that wish will find all sorts of natural (if improbable) ways of bringing that wish about, it is refreshing to find someone writing about wishing people to feel a certain way or to want something other than they normally want – and in turn to wonder if a more powerful wizard has wished yourself to feel or want something in particular.
Unfortunately, anytime the author delves into this side of her magical physics, the more complex and chaotic the story gets, with all of the wishing and thinking and doubting and wondering and fighting off what may or may not be someone else’s wishes. Parts of the novel get bogged down – and while I believe this is probably intentional on the author’s part, to illustrate these parts of her theories, it drastically slows down the novel and in places makes it very difficult to follow. While it is an interesting path, I have to say I prefer her later treatments of the subject matter in the character Tristen from the Fortress series, where he experiences these same things – but as a major power himself and therefore somewhat less mired in doubts as is young Sasha from this novel.
The overarching thread of the learning magician’s respect, loyalty, and love for the somewhat roguish maturing young man is another theme Cherryh addresses in her Fortress series, although again it is a slightly different, and worthwhile discussion.
Again, Rusalka is a very worthwhile novel, with some themes shown later, differently, and perhaps even better in her later Fortress series, but I am definitely looking forward to t he next chapter of this series.