Gate of Ivrel

by C.J. Cherryh

Cover image

Series: Morgaine #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1976
Printing: March 2000
ISBN: 0-88677-877-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 194

Buy at Powell's Books

I read this book as part of The Morgaine Saga omnibus; the sidebar information is for that edition.

Cherryh's Morgaine series starts off with an intriguing background. A race of beings created a system of Gates that linked many worlds, not only through space but through time. One could travel through the Gates both forward and backward in time, but backward was considered dangerous. The creators moved ever farther forward through time, accumulating power and mastery of the Gates, until someone violated the rules and went back in time, tampering. A great catastrophe rippled through the Gate system, tearing apart their networks, jumbling worlds, and causing apocalyptic damage.

The culture that arose from the remnants set out to close all of the Gates to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. They sent out a team on a one-way mission to close each Gate as they pass through it, trying to locate them all and shut down the system.

That lead-in, however, introduces a dark, brooding, and unfortunately somewhat generic fantasy novel. The hero is Vayne, a bastard son of a lord tormented by his older half-brothers until he kills one of them. Exiled and declared outlaw by his father under a strict code of oaths vaguely reminiscent of Japanese ronin, he is Claimed by the mysterious woman named Morgaine, a figure from legend who, one hundred years in the past, had led a catastrophic war that ended with the destruction of all who followed her. She fled through a Gate, and in moments passed through one hundred years before she could return.

Morgaine is, of course, one of the ones who has set out to destroy the Gates, but very little of that background makes it into this book. Morgaine is dark, brooding, unpleasant, and more than willing to take advantage of Vayne's service if it gets her closer to destroying another Gate. She's completely obsessed with their destruction, and Vayne is completely obsessed with his honor and with following his vows to her no matter how much he fears her. The two of them move through the world from bad to worst, negotiating fallen halls, diseased kings, and dangerous treachery and setting off new wars as they go.

Gate of Ivrel is almost unremittingly dark. Only at the very end of the book is there any clear sign of hope and real human connection. Otherwise, Vayne reads some signs of human feelings into variations in Morgaine's obsession, both of them brood, and the story is full of hard choices, disaster, and loss of honor and face. The world feels intensely claustrophobic, with too many strong feelings and tainted rulers packed into too small of territory, too many horrific deeds too close together.

Cherryh's language is elaborate and faintly archaic, particularly in Morgaine's dialogue. It's full of description and mood, a bit too labored in its attempt to capture the darkness of the world for my taste. I had some difficulty making it through this book, both because of slow reading due to the slightly convoluted language and because of the unremitting angst. It is a bit of an acquired taste, and over time I gained more and more sympathy with Morgaine. As the details of her situation become apparent, there's a lot to feel sorry for. But she doesn't help either Vayne or the reader make any connection. On one hand, it's a more accurate and sharper portrayal of dark obsession than the easily-addressed emotions of a lot of fantasy series, but on the other hand, it's rather depressing to read. The ending redeems the book somewhat, but I still never warmed to it.

So far, not particularly recommended. I think there's potential here if Morgaine will drop her defenses long enough to make a true emotional connection with someone, but it's not clear if that will happen. Later books of the series may be an improvement, but Gate of Ivrel itself is bleak without catharsis.

Followed by Well of Shiuan.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-10-30

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