Magic and Negotiation: C.J. Cherryh’s Fortress Sequels

There are two things you can do when you write a sequel to a book where you defeat the magical enemy. You can say they weren’t really defeated (or that they were only the pawn of another, worse, enemy, which is really the same thing) or you can deal with the consequences of the aftermath on the people who are left. In the three books that follow Fortess in the Eye of Time (post), Cherryh does both. Fortress of Eagles, Fortress of Owls and Fortress of Dragons are largely about the characters of Fortress in the Eye of Time trying to cope with consequences, some of them philosophical but most of them political. Then half way through Dragons it takes a swerve into the other kind of sequel and builds up to another big magical confrontation which I find strangely anticlimactic.

The best thing about these books is the detail of the social fabric. Many fantasy feudal kingdoms have kings who can say “March!” and have an army march—here Cefwyn has to build alliances and make compromises with his nobles and his church—churches, rather, for there are three officially tolerated religions. The main antagonists of the first two sequels are the devoutly Quinalt and traditional nobles who are very dubious of all the magic that happens around Tristen, and even of his defeat of evil at the battle of Lewenbrook at the end of the first volume. They weren’t there, and it wasn’t a victory made with their traditional tactics, and there’s something unsettling about him, and about Ninevrisse, who may be the heir to Elwynor and Cefwyn’s betrothed bride but who isn’t what they expected. Cefwyn isn’t his father, Ninevrisse isn’t the marriage they wanted for Cefwyn, and Tristen is one of the Sihhe that their grandparents killed. There’s a lot of history that isn’t forgotten, some of it personal and some of it much wider. There are regional, racial, and religious issues, and feudalism requires a lot of logistics and coalition building and persuasion.

Tristen is also interesting, always, even as he learns more about the world and becomes less of a blank slate. A lot of the charm of these books is watching him acquiring competence and friends and an agenda. Cherryh is very good at helpless male protagonists, you find them in book after book, but in this series and in the Foreigner books the protagonist starts out that way and learns to use power. Tristen learns about the world, he learns about himself, and he learns to control what he wants. Tristen was created by Mauryl to defeat Hasufin, and after having defeated Hasufin he has to wonder what he is for and how he is supposed to live. I liked his answers and the way he was arriving at them, which is why I find the wider purpose and new enemy disappointing.

Ninevrisse is also wonderful – in the first book she’s not given enough space, but here we see her coping with the women’s court and with Cefwyn’s past and becoming so much more than a damsel in distress. She’s also funny, which is very nice to see.

I mentioned this before, but these books are also full of logistics – decking for bridges and carts not being in the right place and moving around fodder for heavy horses so you can have cavalry charges. I do like to see that, especially when it doesn’t stop the books from moving along rapidly – and apart from Dragons, which does seem to get a bit bogged down in places, they do keep moving. (I wonder if Dragons would have been better being two books?)

Cherryh also goes out of her way to show us the ordinary people on the bottom of the system, not just the lords and the captains but the servants and the sergeants and the boy who runs errands and the farmers and the foot-soldier levies. I like the way she’s aware of them and of what the larger events mean for them. I like the way some of them have traces of magic too and how that integrates, and I like the peasant goddess Auld Syes.

The magic system—systems—are well thought through, and the attitudes of society to wizardry and magic and sorcery fit very well into everything else. I like the way the people of Amefel and Elwynor like magic and have it as part of their religion while the people of the northern provinces want nothing to do with it, and I like the uneasy religious truce on the issues.

These books have the kind of absorbing detail that I find compelling, and for Cherryh they’re practically lighthearted. If you’re looking for something that feels like history but with magic, they’re great.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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