Thursday, October 05, 2006

Review: Fortress of Ice

CJ Cherryh’s newest novel Fortress of Ice marks her return to high fantasy as the fifth book in her acclaimed Fortress series. It’s been sixteen years since the final moments of Fortress of Dragons and Cefwen now sits on the throne as the just ruler of a tenuously united kingdom. He begins to look toward a future filled with the promise of good things he sees in his two sons: Aewyn, the fifteen-year-old rightful heir to the throne, and Elfwyn, an illegitimate child of Cefwyn and the dark sorceress Tarien Aswydd. Raised by the good witch Gran, Elfwyn grew up unaware of his noble lineage. But at fifteen Cefwyn claims Elfwyn and takes him to live at the capitol, where he becomes fast friends with his half-brother. As much as Elfwyn enjoys his new life the dark side of his parentage constantly pulls on him to release some powerful magic that could destroy everything Cefwyn worked so hard to create.

Eflwyn’s character, teetering so desperately between two very different paths, will draw in readers through a dramatic and sometimes magical coming of age story. Much of the early parts of the book rely on political intrigue and constant references to history of the land; fortunately Cherryh wisely includes a short introduction that provides a quick summary of the back-story for readers new to the series. The remaining action focuses on Elfwyn and his search for his own path. The action overall is well plotted and fast moving, and Cherryh's controlled prose works effectively alongside her ideas. Where I feel like the book falls apart, though, is at the ending. When finally confronted with the true evil behind all the dark plotting, the conversation might as well be this:

Evil Person says, "You will bow before me and further my plans to bend the kingdom to my mighty will. Hahahaha!"

Elfwyn responds with, "Screw you, jack!"

Cherryh's approach is not quite that simplified, nor as bluntly snotty, but you get the idea. At no point is Elfwyn really tempted or confused by the evil. Sure, there are points at which he's manipulated but it's made pretty clear that he's not under control of himself at those moments. It never enters Elfwyn's mind that the evil way is better, that he or even the kingdom could be better off if he--ahem--went to the dark side. It all makes the real struggle of the novel---the internal struggle for Elfwyn to find out who he really is---pretty mundane. To her credit, I think Cherry's main intent was to create a compelling commercial novel, and Fortress of Ice will definitely satisfy anyone looking for a fast read. But anyone looking for fantasy to do a bit more needs to look elsewhere.


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