Ranking CJC’s Oeuvre: Fantasy

Recently, I was thinking that (a) CJ Cherryh is one of my very favorite authors and has been for decades; and (b) my science fiction is therefore inevitably drawing on a lifetime of reading CJC’s SF (and for that matter my fantasy also draws on CJC’s fantasy); and (c) CJ Cherryh has written roughly one zillion books and stories, most of which I have read several times, including the entire Foreigner series.

Then I thought, I’ve pulled out various other authors — Gillian Bradshaw, Sharon Shinn, Patricia McKillip — and done a personal ranking of all their books. Why haven’t I ever done this for CJC? Is it just because there are SO MANY that the idea is exhausting?

Maybe that is why.

In that case, the sensible thing to do (for values of “sensible”) is do two different posts, one for her SF and one for her fantasy. There’s plenty of both! And that will make each post manageable. Well, more manageable. Therefore, I’m going to try to do the fantasy today and then sometime in the next few days, the SF.

Forthwith, CJ Cherryh’s large fantasy oeuvre, ranked from best to worst. Obviously we all already know that opinions are personal and subjective. I already know that Elaine T’s Teen probably disagrees with where I’m placing the Rusalka trilogy. I’ll be curious to hear about where you all think I’m totally wrong.

The Paladin — I suspect almost no one is going to agree with me here, but this is the single CJC fantasy I like best. Practically everyone must have read the Morgaine books first, or the Arafel books first, and therefore probably has nostalgic feelings for those. And I like both series a lot. But I still vote for Paladin up at the top. This is a clean, smooth story, with a tight focus. That’s one reason it’s so good. There’s no adventure for the sake of adding excitement, which means if you want adventure and excitement, you’ll put this book a lot farther down on the list. It’s a character study, which I like very much, and an extended training story, which I also like very much. Then we do get the exciting bit at the end, which also works very well for me, and the denouement, which I think also works well. So I like all the elements of this story and I’m putting it at the top. I will add that although it’s very different, I feel that readers who like the Phoenix Feather series by Sherwood Smith would most likely appreciate this book.

Fortress in the Eye of Time — I think this book starts slowly. Very slowly. This is common with CJC, so no surprise there. About the time Tristen starts being allowed to chat with his guard, the story becomes more engaging, and then it winds up as one of my favorite of CJC’s fantasies, even though I personally do find the ending somewhat abrupt and confusing. Also, I am realizing for the first time that probably Esau is partly drawn from Tristen’s guard. Then there is Fortress of Eagles, Fortress of Owls, and Fortress of Dragons — the rest of the story which the first book leads into. This series unrolls, mostly slowly, into a great epic fantasy story. At this length, where CJC has room to stretch out, she’s really at her best. I happen to really like a lot of the first book (once we’re past the very slow beginning), but all these exactly at the same level as the first book.

Arafel’s Saga — I probably do not need to say that this story unfolds rather slowly. Maybe I should just assume that everyone expects that. Anyway: This was one of the first Celtic fantasies I ever read and it blew me away at the time. I love, love, love the names. Meadhbh, pronounced “Meave!” Who wouldn’t love that? I LOVE that. If you ever wondered who to blame for the sometimes, ah, challenging names I occasionally use in certain books, it’s CJC’s fault. I mean, when readers complain, I usually dial it back in my next book. That’s why The Keeper of the Mist wound up with such simple, easy-to-pronounce names. Personally, however, I strongly prefer names like “Inhejeriel” and “Gajdosik” and “Ubezhishche” and so on. Interesting, fun names that are not much at all like modern American names! I remember clearly how much I loved the names in this series and I’m certain that influenced my preference for really neat names.

But maybe I should say something about the story. Arafel is a very interesting character! But she is not exactly nice. Not vicious or anything. She’s just … not exactly human. She was one of the first sidhe characters I ever encountered, and she does rather set the bar high for the sidhe. Not human, not exactly nice — I’m putting that wrong. Not exactly safe. I would not want to bump into a sidhe personally. Though if I did, Arafel would be a good choice. The language, the actual writing, is beautiful. This story showcases Cherryh’s ability with language maybe better than anything else she’s ever written. It’s just lovely. The story itself unfolds a little at a time. It’s best for a patient reader who enjoys the story at its own pace and doesn’t get impatient when there’s not an exciting adventure on every page.

The Morgaine series — Although I love a lot of tropes here — you know what, maybe I should add this series as an inspiration for TUYO — anyway, I love the setup and a lot of the way the series unfolds. It’s generally slow. Everything by CJC is slow, so that’s fine. But there are also things I don’t enjoy as much. This story is like … it’s like … you know what, it’s actually a lot like you replaced Aras with Tenai from the Death’s Lady series, handed Tenai a quest she hadn’t yet fulfilled, and then told the story from there. Morgaine is obsessively focused on her goal and this makes her much (much) less sympathetic than Aras. She is interesting! But she is specifically not very nice! And I like her, but it takes rather an effort. After Morgaine finally starts to care about Vanye, I like the story better. This takes a while. I like Roh, eventually. This also takes a while. Very much worth reading! But I put the above books above this one.

Hammerfall — Do not tell me this is really SF. I am aware of that. It reads like fantasy, and I’m treating it like fantasy, and yes that puts this book here and its sequel in the other post on SF, but that’s the way it goes when you write a novel that is fantasy-but-really-SF. I like this book a lot. It’s weird, but I like it a lot. There’s a huge amount of traveling from point A to point B and back again and then back AGAIN, which actually does not bother me! I enjoyed it! But just so you know, the entire book consists of traveling from one place to another repeatedly, with increasing urgency. The SF elements don’t (to me) make a lot of sense, but I like it a lot despite that. I don’t like the sequel very much. It feels totally different. It feels like it is in a different universe. I expect CJC did that on purpose, but it doesn’t work for me. The existence of the sequel pulls this one down, in my opinion. I would suggest reading this book as a standalone and maybe dragging your feet a bit about the sequel.

The Goblin Mirror — For me, this novel almost works, but not quite. I love some things about it. Other things, much less. I really love the ending, though. It’s lovely and poetic and I LOVE the way the goblins are like, “But there has to be a bargain!” and the protagonist just laughs.

Merovingen Nights — This is a shared world universe, with one novel by CJC plus lots of story collections. The stories are written by CJC herself; by Janet Morris, whose stories I do not like; by Mercedes Lackey, who wrote some really good stories here; and by various others. I have the whole set. There’s an overarching story that goes through the whole series, which is an impressive achievement when working with a shared world. I do like the series. But the world is quite claustrophobic, with most people struggling to get by. Claustrophobic settings are difficult for me. I always find it difficult to enjoy a story set in a world where a lot of people are pretty much trapped by circumstance.

Legions of Hell — Speaking of being trapped by circumstance! Lots of important historical figures, particularly from Ancient Rome, fighting to maintain a decent afterlife for their people, in Hell. Complicated and hard to follow if you come in at the middle, because this is a long, long shared world series of collections plus some number of novels. Let me see — okay, here is a Wikipedia page about this series. Oh, nine novels and 16 story collections. That’s bigger than I realized! That has to put this series second only to Eric Flint’s 1632 shared world. I never read anything else in the Heroes in Hell series, and found the one I read more interesting than engaging. Janet Morris was heavily involved in this series and wrote far more stories than Cherryh, and, sorry, but I just never like basically anything that Janet Morris ever wrote, so that prevented me from searching for the rest of the books and anthologies in this series.

Rider at the Gate / Cloud’s Rider — I like the idea, I like the nighthorses. But (a) the world is fundamentally highly claustrophobic, with almost everyone tightly constrained by circumstances, which is not what I like at all in a world. And (b) wow, if people weren’t so appallingly incompetent, the main problem in the story, which was horrible by the way, would have been much more solvable.

Look, it’s a bit like having a horrible sorcerer in the Tuyo series. Actually, it’s almost exactly like that. Saying, Oh, but it’s not her fault is not useful. Saying, Oh, we can’t kill her, poor child, we’ll just have to take the risk that she’ll torture everyone in the town to death is absolutely insane. I just could not stand the obviously horrible choices everyone made all the way through this duology, leading to terrible outcomes. Yes, the outcomes could have been even worse, but for heaven’s sake, they could have been far, far less terrible. The whole second book should never have happened!

In other words, put any other plot in this world and I would have been happier. Lighten up on the constraints suffered by almost all people in this world and I would have LOVED it. As it is, I find the duology almost unreadable. BESIDES ALL THAT, (c) there was obviously supposed to be a third book, which did not get written, leading to a dangling thread of the worst kind. Having said all that, all the reviews are much more positive than I’ve made it sound.

Faery in Shadow — I did not like this story much; see below.

The Brothers” in the anthology Visible Light. Now also in the collection here. I did not like this story at all. One young man accepts a curse in order to gain the assistance of a sidhe to free his brother from a terrible situation. This works out, but it’s an ambiguous ending at best. The novel above is basically a sequel that makes the events in “The Brothers” seem marginally less awful.

Fortress of Ice — Hated it. Not every single scene, but overall, no. This was a series where CJC should have stopped while she was ahead.

Rusalka trilogy — Loathed the first book, bought the second and third because I’m a CJC completetist. Could not bring myself to read the second book, gave the books away. Ugh. This was actually once more a response to what I perceived as a horrifically claustrophobic situation; a person trapped by a terrible type of sorcery and other people trapped in that situation with him. I realize it works out. I just could not get through the long, slow slog to a better situation.

Okay! What’s your favorite CJC fantasy? Least favorite? What is wildly off base in this list? What did I leave out? I think I’ve read (pretty much) all of CJ Cherryh’s books, but I might have missed something somewhere because really, there are lots.

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23 thoughts on “Ranking CJC’s Oeuvre: Fantasy”

  1. I would also put Paladin near or at the top! I think my three favorites would be, in no particular order, Paladin, the Arafel books and the Morgaine books. Well, probably in exactly that order now that I think about it. I did, in fact, like the Rusalka books but also would rank them fairly low in her ouevre. As an aside, one of my daughters is named Maeve. She’s always been tickled that although people misspell her name all sorts of ways, no one ever ends up with any of the actual other spellings like Maedhbh.

  2. I’m very fond of The Paladin but would put Fortress ahead of it. I prefer to forget the existence of the fifth installment (Ice), too. the four Fortress books are at the top of my list. heck, even my husband liked them.

    The Teen agrees about Rusalka which is a slog. The Teen read Chernevog first as the cover image caught the imagination. Then backed up to read the first, and likes the revised third much better than the original version. I think there are some interesting thoughts about magic in them all, and Eveshka is an excellent example of an irrational – but plausible – character. We named our scale for irrationality in characters after her.

    I also think CJC tackled many of the same ideas in Fortress and handled it all better.
    Arafel I loved years ago, but on a reread a few years ago not so much. Although I think the end is still very well done. Goblin Mirror was an excellent stand-alone.

  3. Yes! Paladin is easily my favorite CJC fantasy. For SF, it’s a draw between Downbelow Station (Ewoks done right!) and 40000 in Gehenna.

  4. I tend to prefer her SF, though I’ve reread Paladin and Hammerfall, so I have to say I liked those best of her fantasy.
    Some of them I haven’t read and might like to one day (The Goblin Mirror, maybe Arafel’s saga, because you rate it higher than Morgaine and Hammerfall), others I haven’t read and have been put off reading (Merovingen nights, and maybe Arafel’s saga, since I disliked other of her Celtic stories – Rusalka turned me off), because I disliked quite a few of her more ‘claustrophobic’ fantasies, and won’t read them again.

    I found her Legions in Hell (never read any more of that shared world) and The Sword of Knowledge acceptable adventure stories to while away the time, but not tempting me to reread – somehow they lacked (for me) something that makes CJ’s books speak to me as something special.

    I think I rank the Morgaine books, the Mrin trilogy, and the Fortress books all at a similar mid-level; I remember finding the Fortress books rather confusing when I read them, a long time ago – maybe my head was too full of other things to keep hold of all the threads, and they’d be worth rereading when I do have some brainpower reserves.

  5. This list is useful to know where to start with CJC’s fantasy books. I haven’t read any of these except for about half of Rusalka (which I bought because I wanted more stories based on Slavic mythology after reading Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted* and Spinning Silver ). I will probably finish it someday, but it wasn’t working for me when I tried reading it – I was also recovering from a concussion at the time, so my patience was very thin.

  6. “Do not tell me [Hammerfall] is really SF. I am aware of that. It reads like fantasy, and I’m treating it like fantasy,”

    No worries – I was only going to say that about the Morgaine series and Merovingen Nights. ;-)

  7. Yes, Merovingen too, granted — but I’d argue against Morgaine being SF. I think those gates are fantasy technology, not actual SF technology.

    The Faded Sun, now — THAT is SF despite a strong fantasy feel. That one, I’m including in the upcoming post!

    Pete, yes, I specifically avoided that cover because ugh. I’m glad my paper copy has the original cover.

  8. I really like the Fortress series, even if I’m still trying to figure out the ending. And I enjoyed the Merovingen series overall. It might feel constrained but it does end on a very hopeful, horizon expanding note.

  9. @Pete Mack, my several decades old paperback of Paladin has that cover, so it’s not that new! Maybe it was the UK version?

  10. The opening of Gate of Ivrel includes a report from the Union Science Bureau, who are the ones who dispatched the expedition Morgaine is the last (second-generation, IIRC) survivor of. (In the comics adaptation, Ari Emory even weighs in.)

    As I often say, Union has its ups and downs, but I really respect that their response to discovering a system of time gates offering vast power and vast danger was to take one look and say “Kill it with fire!” That puts them well ahead of the qhal, who didn’t believe build the gates but did say “hey, neat!” till they blew up their interstellar civilization with a paradox.

    Morgaine herself also makes it pretty clear in story that she’s operating from a technological background and translating, with difficulty, into Vanye’s understanding of the world. Vanye is basically a fantasy character encountering Clarke’s Law tech.

  11. I don’t remember all that, Mike, but I’ll certainly take your word for it. I’m always going to treat it as a fantasy novel, though, since it totally reads that way.

  12. Fair enough! I run into the same boundary issues with Pern, which I’ve likewise always read as SF due to the prologue and the ongoing thread (sorry!) of tech rediscovery, but which I know a lot of people read as fantasy.

  13. Mike, yep, Pern is another for me. That sucker is fantasy. You cannot get those dragons in the air using real physics. That’s fantasy.

    That’s actually why I like the category of “science fantasy.” Those are the kinds of books I think belong in that category.

  14. Though it would be interesting to narrow down flying objects in SF to those that conform to real physics. (FTL craft need not apply. )

  15. Related: stories set in space get coded as science fiction (and nominated for Hugo awards) even if they properly belong to another genre. E.g., Apollo 13 (historical fiction), Gravity (either period piece, since it featured the retired Space Shuttle, or contemporary adventure), and Star Wars (pulp fantasy/planetary romance).

  16. Good points, Mike! Psionics work the same way — so does time travel. They’re coded as SF even though they’re fantasy.



    Dragons are ALWAYS fantasy unless you make them out of machinery, and even then sometimes they’re fantasy. (Michael Swanwick, Iron Dragon’s Daughter). You stick a dragon in your novel, I’m going to read it as fantasy unless you force me to read it as SF. The Steerswoman series did that. Not sure anything else ever has.

  17. Completely agree with Paladin being Cherryh’s best fantasy, and also an excellent standalone novel.

    I really, really like the Nighthorse books although I don’t reread them often. They are, as you say, intensely claustrophobic—but the setting is one that sticks in my mind far far more than most. “This is a world where everything really is out to eat you, except one of the apex predators sometimes gets addicted to human minds and comes out of the wild calling for the (unlucky) chosen one” — I’d have loved to see more books in that setting dealing with other problems, or heck, a role playing game or fanfiction set in the world (and dealing with other characters!)

  18. This makes me want to reread Paladin. I still have my paperback copy from when it first came out, but my eyes are sufficiently old now that I just picked it up in e-book format. Thank heavens for Kindles and big print, illuminated pages!

  19. Allan, you’ve got that right! I love being able to set the print to HUGE these days.

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