Bar the Gate?

Red Sonja called, would like her outfit back, please ...

Red Sonja called, would like her outfit back, please …

On a lovely Spring evening, the Beamers took a wintry journey through the pages of C.J. Cherryh’s first novel, Gate of Ivrel, following, like the disgraced but loyal Vanye, in the footsteps (and hoofprints) of the legendary Morgaine, wielder of the Gate-closing sword,
Changeling.  While the book, slender as it is (191 pages thin), is filled with chases, battles, betrayals, and conflicts, it was the interaction of the two solitary characters at its core that kept most of us interested to the end and perhaps beyond.

Also Appearing, in the Role of Sidekick …

Cherryh’s first works, though titled The Morgaine Saga in the collected edition, are told from the viewpoint of her bond-servant, Vanye, outlawed bastard son who nonetheless prizes his ability to hold to his oath of service despite both temptations and fears. Morgaine, last survivor of an expedition sent on the one-way trip to close off the remaining teleportation Gates, is the center of attention, being both a mysterious outsider and the bearer of high-tech items that resemble magic devices compared to the medieval cultures through which she travels.  Morgaine’s road is a solitary one and her attitude is fatalistic, her mission too important to permit her to indulge in chivalry or honor.  But Vanye is the character whose thoughts and beliefs inform the reader of what is happening and what it means, save for a brief Prologue that introduces the Gates, the collapse of qhal civilization, and the mysterious loss of 10,000 soldiers in battle before Ivrel Gate.

The limit of seeing the world and its history through Vanye’s eyes was a big dividing point for us.  Some found the restriction of focus too onerous, leaving off what might have been the most intriguing parts of Morgaine’s backstory as well as necessary information about the world of Gate of Ivrel.  Eileen felt frustrated and confused by the seeming inability of characters to take the most obvious routes to what they wanted to accomplish, hampered by unexplained drawbacks to the high-tech artifacts or by past poor decisions whose genesis was never adequately rooted in the story except as needed for authorial convenience.  Jon felt tantalized by the various cryptic mentions of Gates and the qhal (the inheritors and abusers of the Gates) but never found satisfaction in having any resolution to the various puzzles presented.  Even his skimming of the next two Morgaine novels failed to offer him any reward.

On the other hand, I had read the Morgaine books previously, and I found that, on re-reading, the Prologue has quite a few clues buried in it, and the main text is fairly consistent in portraying the ambivalent nature of qhal devices like Morgaine’s sword, Changeling, which bears a teleportation nexus in its tip.

Have We Been Here, Before?

Cherryh’s worlds are noted for the strength of her cultural backgrounds.  Here, she uses a very historical approach, creating a land with a noticeably Japanese approach to honor and aesthetics and clan politics.  Some of the world is left unsketched, such as religion (even as the book mentions Heaven, Hell, and an order of monks who offer sanctuary to fugitives).  The feel of the book is quite like a fantasy, even though any “magic” has a high-tech rationale.  The handling of such high-tech items was another point of contention.  For some, having such overwhelming power available but not utilizing it was inexcusable, indicating either poor plotting on the part of the author or a failure to think through the implications of the introduced tech.  As with the minimal depiction of religion, part of the blame may lie on either the book being a first novel, or partly on it being published by a small firm (DAW Books) specializing in sf and fantasy, who may have needed to keep print lengths short and so edited out some of Cherryh’s background.

Two Are Better Than One Alone

For the Beamers who liked the book, the major focus on Vanye and his struggle to maintain his oath to Morgaine amid his own web of past loyalties and family relations.  Rick, who was re-reading the book for the third time, liked the struggles that Vanye had to maintain his pledge to Morgaine while not making his guilt over a past misdeed (“accidentally” killing a bullying older half-brother) worse.  Jon did not think that any of the attempts to lure Vanye to abandon Morgaine were sufficiently tempting, with the one exception (that Rick quickly mentioned) of his brother’s offer to remove the outlawry and share the kingship with him.  Liz, too, enjoyed the travails of the two main characters, both strong in different ways, both committed to goals that gradually come to include each other.

With the action offset from Morgaine to Vanye, certain events due occur off-stage, to Jon’s dislike.  But others found Vanye to be a good guide to the cultures of his world, as well as a strong character on his own.  Alan, too, as a re-reader, was not deterred by the shortness of the Prologue nor the lack of much in-character discussion of past events (another restriction chosen by Cherryh having set the action 100 years after Morgaine’s original attempt to close the Ivrel Gate).  He saw it as a writer working within the limits set by the way she wished to tell her story, to which Jon replied that he could see a number of better ways to narrate the book that could have told more.

Fran enjoyed the intimate view of Vanye and his culture, though she did note that the book had a very grim feel, which she contrasted with the way George R.R. Martin leavens the grit of his Song of Ice and Fire with some festive scenes, a sense of the joy of life that Gate of Ivrel lacks.  Here, when a harper plays “quiet, pleasant songs”, we do not hear the music.  No surprise that in the book’s Introduction, Andre Norton describes Vanye as “dour”.  Even with that sense of cold purpose, Fran did read the sequel (Well of Shiuan), a book with greater foreboding that she and I both liked more.

Don’t Worry, It Gets Better

When ratings were totaled up, more of us liked the book than not, and the dissenters were more displeased that something better was missed than upset that something bad was achieved.  Chris, who read the book in a hurry, was encouraged to try the next book on Fran’s and my recommendations, and Robin, who had not had the chance to read it at all, was willing to give it a go (hopefully for at least the first four chapters that it took the book to win over Nick’s interest).  If Cherryh’s first published work was rough in spots, she more than made up for it in her subsequent works, both fantasy and science fiction, and we spent a bit of time offering up suggestions for further reading for the Beamers not fortunate enough to encounter her many worlds and their deeply developed societies.

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