So, I’ve been plodding through CJ Cherryh’s Fortress series, loving and hating it. I’ve been loving it because its characters are so well drawn, and don’t inexplicably share the attitudes and worldviews of late C.20 middle-class Westerners, and because the plot is driven by their actions and motivations in a coherent and believable way; its setting is a fairly standard late medieval European fantasy milieu, but it is well thought through, and Cherryh clearly imagines the functioning of a society, and the logistical requirements of getting things done in such a world.
I’ve been hating it because, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s extremely tedious. This is partly because of the language, which is well crafted, and considerably more burnished than George R.R. Martin’s, for example, but far too faux-archaic for my liking, especially when characters from the lower social orders are speaking. But it’s mainly because of the length at which Cherryh articulates her characters’ internal dialogues: these are never less than convincing, perceptive, intelligent representations of the characters, but they are far, far too long winded. The same goes for her dialogue which carries verisimilitude too far, in the way that people re-tread the same ground repeatedly until they’ve trampled a path to move on through.
Both these things, the internal and external dialogues, could work, if they were in a book that had something to say about the world in which its readers live, but the Fortress series is so inwardly focussed that it becomes very difficult to stay interested. To plough through all that, when the only insights to be found at the end are either specific to Cherryh’s secondary world, or are blandly uncontroversial revelations that it’s generally better to be nice to people, is a bit frustrating.
The inwardness of the whole discourse also weakens the drama: the forces that are balanced in Cherryh’s plot are subtly nuanced magical powers whose precise nature and application are entirely contingent on her imagination, and revealed to the reader in the light of their own implications. In other words, I got the impression that Cherryh was simply moving the goalposts to wherever she wanted to kick the ball, rather than defining her world in such a way as to give herself some artistic boundaries. The tension dissipated for me as I came to realise I would simply read x amount of fugal, dream-like magical mystery tour, followed by a happy ending. And that is exactly what happened.
Having said all this, I’ve been reading a few bits and pieces in the fantasy genre lately, and some of the writing that’s around (and successful) is indescribably dire. Compared to someone like David Eddings, Cherryh is a paragon of the writer’s craft. She knows how to keep her tools sharp, and she knows what to do with them. Eddings’ characters are stick figures next to hers, and her meanderings are never less than finely wrought, in stark contrast to the clumsy, semi-literate prose that’s common in the genre…