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If only Cherryh had remained a fantasist, what might have been.
Gate of Ivrel, first book of the Morgaine Cycle, was C.J. Cherryh's first published work, and a novel she began in her teens, and as many such go it is shamelessly derivative and yet still shockingly original, raw talent shining through a framework constructed from other peoples' ideas. It begat two quick sequels and then, a dozen years later, a fourth; each, in the fashion of things before trilogy-itis, is a story complete in itself within a few hundred pages, and none truly complete things; the story is open-ended, and while certain plot arcs touch down in the third and fourth books especially, more open up, and it's certainly not a series where everything is neatly tied down by the end. Life continues, and the story of Morgaine and Vanye continues unwritten.

Of influences it has many, but the ones that stand out are Andre Norton—the gates and the worlds are lifted pretty cleanly from her works—and Michael Moorcock's Elric books, whose hero, gender-flipped, gave Morgaine many of her signature characteristics—her height, her white hair, her dark armor and soul-sucking sword, her bitter cynicism. Viewpoint character Vanye, The Lancer to Morgaine's heroine, is lifted whole from feudal Japan and given a veneer of European fantasy.

The two of them, ice queen and sensitive man who thinks too much, are character types Cherryh has returned to time and again since, and these, in their first outing, are the best versions. It's the strength of characterization and Cherryh's stream-of-thought writing style that carry these novels, aided by her well-drawn worlds in decay.

Of the four novels, the third, Fires of Azeroth, is by my judgment the best, and if Cherryh had never written the fourth this would have been a better stopping place, with fewer loose ends, than what we get from Exiles' Gate, good book though it is.

In wider theme the novels are an exploration of wider versus local morality, of Morgaine's overarching mission versus the condemning to shorter, more tragic lives that she visits upon those she passes through and uses for her own ends of the greater good. On a less grand scale, loneliness and the dance of courtly love are explored.

These are still, twenty years after I read them, my equal favorite fiction of all time, and are to my eye horribly under-appreciated.
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