Imagine a universe where a set of Stargates connect distant worlds. Many of these worlds have a low level of technology, and often fear and distrust those who come through the Stargates. The secret of making the Stargates, and who and why they made them, is only distantly known.
Now imagine an expedition of individuals going through the various Stargates, seeing the various worlds that they connect. Meeting the human and not quite so human races to be found on these worlds. So far, you should be thinking of Stargate, the movie and its sequel series Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe.
Now imagine that it was determined that the Gates had destroyed a galactic civilization, and could still change and wipe out worlds and polities with a careless bit of travel. And so this expedition’s mission isn’t just to explore the Stargate network — but to destroy it, one gate at a time.
The science fantasy Morgaine novels, by C.J. Cherryh, explore the quest of the last member of an expedition to do just that.
The first three Morgaine novels, Gate of Ivrel, Well of Shiuan, and Fires of Azeroth were first written by Cherryh in an early stage of her career, in the 1970s. After much clamoring of fans, the fourth Morgaine novel, Exile’s Gate, was written in the late 1980s and marks the end of the series to date.
Lots of the tropes of the aforementioned Stargate Series can be seen in the pages of the four novels. Medieval worlds, check. Worlds in peril of imminent destruction, check. Worlds with races who are not human and have no truck with the upstart humans, check. Time travel. Check. Funky tricks in using and manipulating gates? Check. When I first watched the series, years ago, I was struck at just how much the series mined these novels for ideas.
Beyond the many ideas of the series are the virtues of the writing. Cherryh keeps us, as a reader, almost entirely out of Morgaine’s head entirely. Instead, we get our point of view from Vanye, who is a failed knight who winds up accidentally getting himself pledged to Morgaine’s service. He’s tormented by his failures and inadequacies, and Morgaine uses him rather ruthlessly in the pursuit of her aims. Themes of his duty, his honor, and yes, his friendship and his love with his liege, Morgaine.
The worldbuilding of the series is careful, patient and well developed, a virtue that Cherryh exported to her other series and novels. The first three novels are much more strongly linked together than to the fourth, as the worlds of Ivrel, Shiuan and Azeroth have had much more contact and history together. Cherryh works changes on that theme with linguistic drift, and varying customs, and political structures that echo and reflect off of each other. There are echoes of Medieval Spain, and Scotland and even Tolkien within these three worlds.
Nhi Vanye as a point of view means that the reader, rather than our point of view character, has to work to connect some dots about who and what Morgaine is and what she does, as well as just what’s going on, within and without of Morgaine. Morgaine’s backup weapon, for example, is, to the alert reader, clearly an energy/laser pistol. By having Vanye as our primary point of view, the strange and alien Morgaine (who is close to but definitely not human herself) seems even stranger and odder through the lens of our viewpoint character. The books definitely make the reader work for details and revelations. Cherryh trusts her readers not to have to be spoonfed answers and implications.
One of the most memorable elements of the series, beyond Morgaine being from the Alliance-Union universe of her fiction, is her primary tool and weapon, Changeling. Alongside Sting, and Stormbringer, and their ilk, Changeling is one of the most memorable and story-potent swords in all of science fiction and fantasy. Changeling is a tool and a weapon, a sword that has a gate at its very tip that sucks those struck, or even those that draw too close, into its maw to be destroyed. Like the aforementioned Stormbringer, it is not a weapon lightly drawn and used. In addition, its the key to Morgaine’s ability to perform her mission — to shut down the Gates.
A warning and a reminder, though, for those who think that George R.R. Martin and recent fantasy authors invented grimdark: The Morgaine novels are incredibly grim in tone and outlook. The very idea that this is a doomed quest from the start, and Morgaine keeps on plodding at it anyway, can make for a dark reading experience. Going about and destroying gates, even to worlds that are in the midst of upheavals natural and otherwise, makes Morgaine a very grey character. And yet, in the fourth book, the good and the upside of why Morgaine should do this is there for the reader to tease out, and ponder.
Delightfully, the entire quartet of Morgaine novels are due to be re-released in a single ebook omnibus in September 2015. While Cherryh’s Foreigner series is her bread and butter today, her science fantasy Morgaine novels are where I first was introduced to the virtues of her writing, and still think are the best introduction to what she can do as an author.