Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: 'Gate of Ivrel' by C. J. Cherryh

4/5 Stars

‘Gate of Ivrel’ appeared in 1976 as DAW book No. 188; the cover art for this printing is by Michael Whelan. Succeeding volumes in the ‘Morgaine Trilogy’ include ‘Well of Shiuan’ (1978) and ‘Fires of Azeroth’ (1979). Cherryh produced a fourth book in 1988, ‘Exile’s Gate’. The first three volumes are available in the DAW omnibus ‘The Morgaine Saga’ (2001).

The Gates are portals to wormholes capable of mediating instantaneous travel not only from one locale to another, but, via use of the ‘major’ or ‘universal’ Gate, to other planets. Built long ago by a humanoid race called the qhal, the Gates also permit travel back in time; this is fraught with danger, as a careless journey can lead to interference with causality and the triggering of a ‘time-quake’. One or more of such time-quakes have led to the destruction of qhal civilization. The humans who have descended from the qhal Empire have decided that the remaining Gates must be destroyed to prevent further catastrophes.

On a nameless planet with a medieval level of technology, Venye, an outcast tribesman, finds himself forced into the service of a mysterious woman named Morgaine, who vanished a century ago after an effort to destroy the Gate of Ivrel, the universal gate on this world, failed. Awakened from suspended animation by Venye, Morgaine renews the quest to destroy the Gate of Ivrel.

The novel is one long chase sequence as the hapless Venye accompanies Morgaine on her travels to the northern reaches, the Gate, and the kingdom of Hjemur, where rules one Thiye, a human who has acquired enough knowledge of the Gate’s power to be a dangerous adversary.

En route there are various violent encounters with clans of superstitious, but cunning, characters, and much of the book’s adventures revolve around the efforts of Venye and Morgaine to overcome one batch of pursuers after another. And while the book slows mid-way to belabor a psychodrama involving Venye and some of his estranged relatives, overall, the narrative maintains its rapid pacing.

Morgaine is plainly modeled on Michael Moorcock’s ‘Elric’ character, what with her bouts of guilt-stricken angst, ‘doomed’ sword ‘Changeling’, pale complexion, and white mane of hair, but she is less powerful than Elric, and not every encounter necessarily leads to barbarians falling by the hundred. Venye is not so much a heroic figure, as a sort of dogged, dim-witted ally who manages to survive by his wits, and some luck.

‘Gate’ suffers from some stilted writing: tree branches ‘writhe’ against the night sky, the clopping of horses’ hooves sounds ‘lonely’, and no one ever employs contractions in their dialogue, making many conversations wordy and rather pretentious. However the novel features some entertaining characters, a well-realized world, an interesting quest, and, unlike many contemporary fantasy novels, its short length (191 pp.) means it can be read in a few day’s time. And if you like it, three more installments await.

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