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

Reading 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.


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