I mentioned in a recent post that I was reading CJ Cherryh’s Fortress if Ice:
This is the latest in the Fortress series; and I’m happy to say, to my surprise, she’s looking like she’s redeemed herself after a couple of significant misfires.
The Fortress series started off fabulously well with Fortress in the Eye of Time; and had she left it at that, it might well be her best book, certainly in the best five (and you know, she’s got something on the order of fifty novels so far, so that’s saying something.) However, she tends to write what the publishers demand, and they demanded more Fortress.
The second and third worked well enough; very strong characters, her typical intricate political plotting, her typical complex character psychology, and a brilliantly imagined world with a unique magical structure.
However, the forth was where she lost it. The ending did not in any way work; I’m forgetting the details now, but I walked away from it thinking, dammit, CJ stumbled, it’s not like her.
And then she whiffed again, and again, with Hammerfall and it’s sequel, Forge of Heaven. Whiffed badly – the first is bad Dune pastiche, the second, some bizzare attempt at ‘postcyberpunk‘ with ersatz camels. They were just bad. Bad with no real redeeming quality.
Not that she had completely lost it; in the same period she managed to turn out a volume or two of the Foreigner series (one of her best). But it wasn’t looking encouraging.
But I bought on faith; I can’t help it sometimes when it’s a favorite author, I have a reflex to hit buy now with one click. When I saw she’d added an unexpected fifth Fortress book, I grabbed it. And it sat on my to-read stack for the better part of a year, while I remembered why the fourth one should not have been written.
I bounced off it at least three times; it starts slowly, with an ill-advised teenage POV voice that sounds awkward. But once the characters are defined, things begin to move, and the reason for the teenage POV becomes clear (Cherry still doesn’t write a teenage POV particularly well, but it stops mattering much when the action moves and the other character POV’s come in in the second quarter of the book).
Once the book starts moving, I remembered all the things I love about Cherryh, and all the reasons the early Fortress books worked; the spooky feel everything magical has, the sense of confusion, the complex, layered characters. The way she fools with both the reader’s assumptions, and the characters assumptions, and what’s really going on. As usual, she’s not an easy writer, counting on us to figure things out and not explaining them, but she manages to wide menace behind the simplest things and develop unlikely characters in unexpected ways.
After the slow start, all the things that work in her writing are here. And when I finished the book last night, I was distraught that I hadn’t another Cherryh novel to start. She’s like that; I almost got out an older one to re-read. And then I found that the Foreigner novel’s out, so thanks to Amazon Prime, I don’t have to wait long.