So I got a bit fed up with the Vlad Taltos books because of how roleplaying-ish they felt. I mean, Bo would consider this a virtue, for example when the protagonist displays ingenuity that points to him having a cunning player behind him, but I found it irritating when said player(s) seem to work their character out of trouble using the most PC technique in the book, arguing with the DM. The breaking point was when, with the hero gets captured on a distant island where magic doesn’t work, his friends bust him out using some other kind of magic.
Frankly, the protagonist seemed to be having too easy a time of it, and (being a D&D character at heart), he didn’t seem to have much to struggle for. When the biggest problem the hero faces is marital difficulties (he wants a comfortable life of murder and riches, his wife is into fighting for social justice and overthrowing a millennial-old caste system), and every other challenge is trounced by his powerful magical buddies, well – it does feel too much like the world through Bo’s perspective, which is not mine.
Still wanting to stick to Fantasy, I picked up C.J. Cherryh’s Chronicles of Morgaine, a British omnibus edition from 1989 of the trilogy starting with Gate of Ivrel (1976 – Cherryh’s first published novel) and continuing with Well of Shiuan and Fires of Azeroth. This is actually Science Fantasy: the frame story tells of an ancient alien race that created a world-spanning network of gates allowing travel through space and time, and how a human space-faring civilization sent a team of explorers to travel along these gates and shut them down, to prevent a recurrence of the catastrophic reality quake that brought down the makes of the gates. Yep, this is totally an Empire of Doors type of setup. I read reviews of these books in old issues of Galaxy, many years ago, but it’s taken me nearly 20 years to actually read the books.
Despite that framework, the series feels very much like Fantasy: the heroine of the series, the last survivor of the expeditionary task force charged with sealing the gates, has a laser pistol, but she also carries a magic sword, and as she tries to continue her mission, she has to navigate her way through the low-tech cultures of the gate-worlds, which are mostly human and medieval, although there are various remnants of the former builders of the gates, the Qhal. The latter are clearly elf-stand-ins, surviving as haunting superstitions on one world, a cruel and decadent Melnibonian-like dying race on another, and actual Tolkienesque wise forest-dwellers on the third. There’s also the ancient technology of the Gates, indistinguishable from magic, and used as a source of devastating power the (mostly off-stage) dark lord of the first book. But really, it’s the Magic Sword that does it. Magic Sword == Fantasy, just like robots make something science fiction.
As hinted by her weapons, Morgaine, the heroine, is as much a wish fulfillment character as Vlad Taltos, if not more: tall, white-haired and gray-eyed, dressed in black, legendary and doom-laden, she shows up in mid-air, riding her huge stallion right out of legend, having leaped across time to escape her enemies, a hundred years in the past. She reminded me a lot of Elric, both for her look and her sword, and because of her dark and justified reputation as someone who leaves disaster in her wake. But having read a bit of Elric just before, I must add that unlike Elric, whose emo posing makes me want to slap, Morgaine manages some understated dignity. She’s got her mission, she’s got no allies and can afford no courtesy or compromise. She’s the sort of admirable, cold and unsympathetic bitch I fall for in fiction.
To work around Morgaine’s aloofness, Cherryh makes the viewpoint character her companion, so this is like Elric’s adventures recounted by Moonglum (if he’d gone from being a sketchy sidekick to an actual character). Vanye is an outcast knight, sort of a ronin, bound to Morgaine’s service by accident (he was around when she showed up) and trickery (when she got the chance of enlisting him, she couldn’t afford to let it pass). He’s all about honor, bad family relationships and other weaknesses – chiefly, he (and his culture) consider him a coward, because he as an aversion to dying.
In the introduction to Gate of Ivrel, Andre Norton compares it to Tolkien, and indeed the book features a great deal of long travel all around a map, across New Zealand landscapes. But there are also thematic ties, in that Morgaine keeps encountering people who share Denethor‘s outlook: nobody believes she wants to shut down the dark lord’s source of power rather than usurp it, and most of them think that her deadly weapons would be far safer in their own hands. Cherryh’s worldbuilding reminded me of Le Guin, and I found her cultures had believable and practical attitudes. A recurring situation in the novels (particularly in the first, which I think is the strongest) is one where Vanye and Morgaine must take shelter in some household despite their reluctance, and find its hospitality more treacherous than the open road. It’s fitting than that the climax of the story focuses on the escalating struggles with people they meet on their journey, such as Vanye’s kin or Morgaine’s ancient betrayer rather than on the eventual meeting with the mad tyrant controlling the gate. The theme of dealing with the long-ranging consequences of their actions carries over to the other two books in the series.
One last small thing, setting Morgaine as a bit cooler than Elric: her magic sword doesn’t have a demon in it, it has a wormhole, and when she uses it, it’s much scarier than Stormbringer.