C.J. Cherryh

December 29th, 2013Posted by Nancy

The next writer I discovered (around the same time as Tanith Lee) was C. J. Cherryh, with her first novel Gate of Ivrel.  With a cover like this, how could I NOT buy it?*  The worlds created for this book, and the 3 sequels, operate at the intersection of fantasy and science fiction.  The main viewpoint characters – Nhi Vanye – is functioning in a world that is clearly recognizable as fantasy.  All of the “technology” wielded by the novel’s other main character – Morgaine – is indistinguishable to him from magic.  There is a plausible science fictional element to Morgaine’s backstory, but none of that makes a difference to the fact that in each of the worlds they visit horses are the main sources of transportation and swords are the main weapons.

In many ways, this novel set a template for the way Cherryh’s novels would work in the future: a young (or youngish) viewpoint character, usually male, struggling to find his way in a hostile world, and strong, mysterious and not always pleasant female characters.  Interestingly, she managed the write the same basic story from the completely opposite viewpoint in the Chanur Series.  The viewpoint character is the strong, confident and “more pleasant than she likes to let on” Pyanafar Chanur, a member of a lion-like species and captain of her house’s flagship spaceship, and the male human character is the mysterious alien who sparks an interstellar struggle.

Cherryh’s novels are characterized by tight-third viewpoints, a sometimes elliptical prose style, a gift for conveying the intricacies of politics and interstellar battles, and a dry humour that is especially present in the Chanur and Foreigner series.  As with Tanith Lee, I don’t like everything she’s done equally, but the ones I do like, I can reread on a regular basis.  In fact, during a time I was given to insomnia, I think I reread Foreigner and its sequel every night for weeks, in rotation with Pride and Prejudice (which is not quite as big a leap as you might think).  I was so immersed in the world she created that one night, waking up in the darkness of the guest room in my mother’s house after having surgery, my first disoriented thought was “where the hell is my security staff?”.  And I think I might have married the series’ protagonist – if I wasn’t already perfectly happily married and he wasn’t fictional, of course.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting C.J. Cherryh twice at conventions.  The first time, she kindly allowed a young aspiring writer to join her for breakfast and blather on about the story she was writing.  She was patient, gracious and helpful and I will always be in her debt for that.

* I will point out that at NO POINT did Morgaine wear a chain-mail bikini!

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