Fri
Sep 28 2012 12:15pm

A Blank Slate in a Complex Fantasy Landscape: C.J. Cherryh’s Fortress in the Eye of Time

A Blank Slate in a Complex Fantasy Landscape: C.J. Cherryh’s Fortress in the Eye of TimeReading Fortress in the Eye of Time (1994) I wonder if somebody said to C.J. Cherryh “Oh, fantasy, you have to have the return of the rightful king, but the thing to do with a complicated world is to have a character to whom the world is strange...” and before they could finish their sentence she’d come up with Tristen, a Shaping, a man created by a wizard as an innocent blank. Tristen doesn’t know enough to come in out of the rain or that fire burns, but understanding of things sometimes Unfolds to him: the first time he touches a pen he can write, the first time on a horse he can ride. He doesn’t know that the falling leaves of autumn will come back in the spring. He’s trusting and innocent but sometimes he knows disconcerting things. The world he has to discover is full of priests and wizards, princes and dukes, intrigues and tangles, and enemies, mortal and otherwise. Oh, and he’s the rightful king come back, but that’s really not the interesting thing about him.

I generally prefer Cherryh’s SF to her fantasy, but this series is the exception. Here we have a world with a history that feels tangled like real history, in which things have happened in the kind of way things happen. It’s not a replay of any specific human history—and it has too many wizards and magicians and wannabe dark lords for that—but it has the same kind of second order effects you’d expect. History is complicated, and people are born involved. Even Tristen, who wasn’t born at all, it entirely caught up in history. Our other central character, Cefwyn, is a prince, the third generation Marhannen heir, whose grandfather usurped the throne with wizardly aid. And when I say the throne, I mean half the throne, the other half of what used to be the country has been an independent and often hostile land for three generations, ruled by a regent, waiting for the king to come back. But it’s with Cefwyn that Tristen ends up.

There’s a supernatural enemy, but his ambitions are relatively small. We have what plausibly feels like an entire planet out there somewhere, and the books are concerned only with one kingdom - so I’m calling this “kingdom level” fantasy, considering the stakes. In addition to kings and wizards we see the economy of the country and the system of taxation and the sketch of the life of an ordinary soldier. We have a countryside with villages who produce levies at need, feudalism that flows in both directions, and religious controversies. There are also logistics, and considerable thought is given to horses.

The thing that keeps me coming back is Tristen, or at least Tristen against this background. He’s honest and trusting and naive, and he knows things nobody else knows and which upset things other people think they know. There are a lot of books about people growing up, from child to adult. What Tristen does is grow from man-sized baby to person. He develops cognition. He learns about consequences. He discovers the world with delight, and fears shadows, for good reason. Tristen isn’t technically human in his own world’s terms, but we can learn a lot about human nature from the way he is. Cherryh must have done a lot of research into child psychology and theories of cognitive development for Cyteen, and I wonder if some of her thoughts on that filtered into her conception of Tristen.

Fortress in the Eye of Time is an independent stand-alone fantasy that happens to have four sequels, which are in no way independent of either it or each other. It can be read alone, and has satisfying completion - but in a very Cherryh way all these books have the “happy ending depends on when you stop” nature. Fortress in the Eye of Time ends with all immediate problems solidly dealt with, and I wasn’t expecting sequels. When sequels came along I bought them in a heartbeat and read them instantly - and I always re-read them too, reading one means reading the whole series, because they’re so immersive and addictive.

I only have one problem with these books, and you won’t have that problem. “Cefwyn” totally reads to me as a Welsh name. In Welsh, a single f is pronounced as v - you need ff to get a ff sound. This isn’t a problem, or at least, I automatically do this with any fantasy name that looks as if it’s Welsh in any book. But here, there’s another character called Cevulirn, with a v, and if they both appear in the same paragraph, or worse in the same sentence, it jerks me completely out of the book. Consequently I hate Cevulirn and wish he’d go away whenever he appears. I’d happily buy all these volumes again if I could have ones where Cevulirn was printed Cefulirn.

(She can’t have meant Cefwyn to be pronounced Ceffwyn! But I very much fear she did. Ugh.)

Apart from this linquistic quibble, I recommend them wholeheartedly.


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.

8 comments
Frankie Nameless
1. Frankie
This post was fabulously well timed -- I was just wondering what to read tonight, and I'm actually at my parents house, where my copy of this book is. And it fits my mood perfectly!

I find this book a lot less paranoia-inducing than a lot of Cherryh, probably because Tristan is so wilfully good natured most of the time that it carries me past the standard 'I am a Cherryh character: I have no idea whats going on, or who I could trust, and everyone might betray me at any moment'.

I actually read the third book in this series before the first one. When I finally got hold of Fortress in the Eye of Time, I found reading it a very strange experience. Based on the later book, my brain had carefully constructed my own version of what this book was like. As it turned out, my version was very different from this one. Although fortunately Cherryh's version is much better!
Cassandra Cookson
2. cass
I've always wondered why this series wasn't more popular or well-known as some of the other kingdom fantasies out there. I picked the first book up because I'd read some Cherryh before and liked her work and I loved the cover art. I was pulled in by the atmosphere, the backstory and the mystery about Tristan. I have all the books and it's the only series of hers that I've kept in hardcover. I hope you will review all of them, Jo.
Cassandra
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Cass: I'm going to do one post on all the sequels, probably fairly soon as I'm onto "Dragons" already.
TW Grace
4. TWGrace
This is one of the few Cherryh creations I never finished. About 15 years ago I picked it up to read on a flight, got about 30 pages in then put it down and never went back...

I should probably dig it out of the pile of books in the closet snd give it a second chance.
dave@dkennedy.org
5. dave@dkennedy.org
I totally agree, but for a related reason - while I too automatically read it as "Sev-win", mostly I just read C-character and hence Cevurlirn, also read as C-character, was confusing...

Generally as an Irish reader, I cringe at American authors' handling of Celtic names of any sort. Mainly because it usually signals an overly-sincere cloying type of world building.

I'll make an exception for Cherryh; I prefer her earlier SF or the Rusalka series, but I adore pretty much everything she's written.
dave@dkennedy.org
6. RandolphF
"Cherryh must have done a lot of research into child psychology and theories of cognitive development for Cyteen, and I wonder if some of her thoughts on that filtered into her conception of Tristen."

Cherryh was a teacher before she was a professional writer. BTW, Ariane Emory is similar in some ways to Margaret Mead, though Cherryh says Emory was not modeled on Mead.

I take it that Cefwyn/Cevulirn are either a copy error, or a result of writing for an audience of monolingual English speakers. Cherryh knows a great deal about Celtic languages and mythology, and it's not a mistake she's likely to make.
dave@dkennedy.org
7. Sam Dodsworth
One of the things I find most interesting about this book is Cefwyn's point-of-view. He's a convincingly practical ruler with practical concerns, but the events around him are increasingly the romantic tropes of High Fantasy, even when (as it seems to him) he's acting for entirely pragmatic reasons. (Of course, the sequels provide a context for that - which is one of the reasons I don't really like them.)

Now I think of it, that tension between the practical and the romantic is all through the story - the logistics of the grand battle; the armoured knights with temperamental horses; Tristen and Uwen. Mauryl's advice to Tristen at the beginning, for that matter: "you are flesh as well as wishes... and whenever you let one fly without the other, then look to suffer for it".
dave@dkennedy.org
8. DJMoore
I'm taking the "C" as in "Celtic", making the King's name Kevin. i have never been able to untangle his Queen's name.

This is one of my major comfort reads. There are specific sections of the later books I re-read, but this one I go straight through, except I often don't read the very beginning. Tristen's origin has nothing of richness and complexity of his court life.

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