Well of Shiuan

by C.J. Cherryh

Cover image

Series: Morgaine #2
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1978
Printing: March 2000
ISBN: 0-88677-877-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 255

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This is the second book of the Morgaine trilogy, but little enough happened in the first book that it's possible to pick up the action starting here. You would miss the beginnings of Vayne and Morgaine's relationship, but Gate of Ivrel didn't develop it much. I read this book as part of The Morgaine Saga omnibus; the sidebar information is for that edition.

I thought the world of Gate of Ivrel was dark, but Well of Shiuan manages to surpass it. Gate of Ivrel just features a claustrophobic society with some evil rulers, strict codes of honor, and dark consequences for falling out of the social order. Well of Shiuan is set in a dying world, with all the human misery, warfare, and suspicion that one would expect. This is not a book for happy endings or a sense of hope and triumph.

Well of Shiuan opens by introducing a new character. The girl Jhirun lives in the flooded remains of what was a hilly shore region before the oceans began to rise. Her people survive on pludering the mounded graves of their ancestors, retrieving gold and jewels for sale to the north in return for grain. It's a marginal, difficult existence and the women are expected to become wives and mothers to as many children as possible. Jhirun has so far avoided that fate, but that day is fast approaching when she discovers a previously unplundered grave in the middle of a storm.

The first few chapters set the scene and introduce Jhirun, who is a likeable character (the first character in the trilogy who I really felt like rooting for). However, the amount of description and darkness of setting drags, particularly given the opening events have little significance for the rest of the story. By the time Jhirun finally encounters the tail end of events from Gate of Ivrel and meets Morgaine and Vayne, I was hoping the story would pick up pace. It does, to a degree, but not enough.

This is another slow, description-rich volume, full of angst, hard choices, painful and stark decisions, and little positive human emotion. Morgaine does start to open up to Vayne a bit, and her emotional state and outlook becomes much clearer here. That helps, but I would have preferred far more in that direction than we get. Jhirun is the spot of hope at the start of the story, but she unfortunately becomes ancillary to the plot once the perspective shifts away from her and spends most of the book tagging along, saying little, and being terrified. Vayne at least gets some opportunities for independent action (the next best thing to Morgaine opening up), but usually just moving from a dire situation to an even worse one. By the time the events of the story reach a climax, there is mob justice, war, widescale destruction, and pages and pages of further angst from Vayne.

By this point in the story, Vayne's ongoing fear of Morgaine's nature and of any knowledge of her purpose and methods has stopped being a point of characterization and is becoming frustrating. It's a bizarre reaction from Vayne given how much else he'll go through for Morgaine, and it mostly serves to keep the reader ignorant of the interesting bits of Cherryh's background and keep the details focused on medieval worlds in which everything is nasty, brutish, and short. Perhaps Cherryh is saving the major revelations for the finale, but it makes the first two books much less appealing.

There is some conclusion to Well of Shiuan, but it doesn't stand on its own. It leaves most significant matters unresolved and everything in generally a worse condition than they were at the start of the book. That plus the unremittingly dark tone made it an unsatisfying story for me. I hope that Cherryh pulls out a wonderful finale, but so far I wouldn't recommend this series.

Followed by Fires of Azeroth.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-10-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21