No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 06, 2008

#5: Fortress of Ice -- C J Cherryh

... the boy with the hollow at his heart, the book that was not burned, the burst tomb, and the sister vanished from his tower ...

It's long enough since I read the previous book in this series (Fortress of Dragons) -- and long enough in the internal chronology of the books, since this takes place some 16 years after the previous novel, and focusses on different characters -- that I am oblivious to any continuity issues, unresolved plot threads et cetera. The previous four books told the story of Tristen, brought into being by the wizard Mauryl and only slowly coming to know his nature and his origins, and to understand the world around him. Fortress of Ice focusses on the friendship between the two sons of Tristen's friend Cefwyn, now the Marhanen King. Cefwyn's elder son Elfwyn (who prefers to be known as Otter) is the bastard son that Cefwyn got on Tarien Aswydd, a scheming sorceress who's spent the last 16 years imprisoned in a tower. Otter and his legitimate half-brother, Aewyn, are friends as well as brothers: as Fortress of Ice opens, Otter has passed his first month living in the capital, Guelemara, and seems to be untainted by his nasty heritage.

But the Quinalt (repressive religious order) are not at all keen on Otter -- he sneezes at church incense, and nearly provokes a holy war -- and things only get worse when, beset by apparently-prophetic dreams of disaster, Otter resorts to witchcraft. He's already sent Paisi (his foster-brother, who suffered the same dreams) back to the cottage where they grew up, to see if Paisi's Gran (a witch in her own right) is safe. And because Otter's a teenaged boy, all this has been done in hasty secret, and he's worked himself into a state about punishment, banishment and what Aewyn will think.

This is mostly Otter's -- Elfwyn's -- story: about coming to terms with his heritage, about whether to be Mouse or Owl, about whether he has any talent or gift of his own and whether he's right to trust the dreams that haunt him. Two things he has to learn: vision and patience. And he has to learn to distinguish simple bad luck, human error, misfortune from the workings of magic in the world: for in this world, magic manifests itself in coincidences, in the invisible, in haunts and broken Wards and secrets hidden from all but their targets. "Sometimes things couldn't be helped falling into place, and even people who didn't ordinarily have a smidge of wizardry might just go along with things."

It's a very chilly novel, the action taking place in the dead of a snowy, stormy winter: snowy woods, howling storms, savagely sharp icicles. Almost every room is plagued by draughts. What sunlight there is, is brief and sharp and bright.

There is overmuch repetition, and some poor proofing: I wanted to take a blue pencil to some pages. This is a fairly slow novel: people think things through in a leisurely way that can be infuriating. In some ways it feels like the first in a new series, with an open ending that invites more plot: in other ways it's firmly rooted in what's gone before, to the detriment of the story for those who haven't read or don't recall how Tristen went from humble beginnings to the shadowy fame he enjoys here.

But I do enjoy Cherryh's dense, distinctive prose style, and the grimness of her settings (muck and mire, bad terrain, hands and clothes filthy with horsehair, sleeping in one's clothes as a matter of course). And I'm intrigued to see how this next generation will play out the unresolved conflicts of their parents.

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