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Literature / Morgaine Cycle

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Michael Whelan's cover art for Exiles' Gate
C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine Cycle comprises four novels as well as a graphic novel adaptation by Jane S. Fancher of part of the first prose novel. The books are:

  • Gate of Ivrel (1976)
  • Well of Shiuan (1978)
  • Fires of Azeroth (1979)
  • Exiles' Gate (1988)

while the graphic novels are:

  • Gate of Ivrel: Claiming Rites (1987)
  • Gate of Ivrel: Fever Dreams (1988)

The books read like fantasy because they are told from the point-of-view of a samurai-like medieval warrior, Nhi Vanye I Chya (Vanye), and there's much that from his point of view is magic. However, from the point of view of characters from more advanced backgrounds, it's all just technology, albeit of the "indistinguishable from magic" category a lot of the time. The books are tenuously tied into Cherryh's Alliance/Union science-fiction universe, although this is a matter of a single quote at the start of the first book and some Backstory in a short story Cherryh published elsewhere (and the graphic novels explicitly state that the task force Morgaine is the last of was sent out on the orders of Ariane Emory herself); it does not actually feature in the story till the end of book four.

Vanye, a fratricide, is exiled as an ilin, roughly a Rōnin. Dizzy with starvation in the countryside, he accidentally frees Morgaine, a strikingly beautiful and dangerous historical figure who has been trapped within a Stargate-like Gate for over a century. He makes the mistake of taking food and shelter from her, which according to law makes her his liege-lord for a year's service, which she takes full advantage of. Turns out her mission is to close the Gates, which are messing up time and space, and she uses his service ruthlessly to do so. Each book sees her eventually destroy a world's Gate and use it before it closes up to go to the next world to do the same thing; it's implied that she's been doing this for a long time, and certainly she originally had companions, all of whom have died.

Gate of Ivrel was Cherryh's first published novel and a story she began as a teenager, and for many readers this series is still their favorite work of hers.

These books contain examples of:

  • After the End: The qhal created a catastrophe by using the Gates to travel back in time.
  • Aloof Big Brother: While both Erij and Kandrys were tough on Vanye, Erij was generally more supportive than Kandrys. Both of them were bigger as well as being better fighters than he, and he was well aware of these facts. The graphic novel clearly shows Erij telling Kandrys he'd gone too far, just before Kandrys pushed Vanye into killing him.
  • Annoying Arrows: oh so averted. Morgaine is very badly wounded by an arrow in book 3.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Jhirun wants to have adventures, be somehow taken in by the khal nobility and become a lady, and not have to marry her frightening, rape-y cousin Fwar. She does indeed have adventures, but they're full of misery and danger, and while Kithan makes her his queen, it's not the life of glamour and ease she imagined, and Fwar is only off her hands because he's trying to kill Vanye on Azeroth.
  • Beware the Honest Ones: "With devils, there is dealing. Sometimes far easier than with an honest man." Morgaine has learned this by bitter experience.
  • Body Surf: Several characters, notably Thiye Son of Thiye, for whom this is a case of Offstage Villainy, though the friendly chap has apparently been doing this to his own appropriately-named descendants. The main instance of this particular subtrope is Chya Zri/Liell/Roh. An interesting variation on this trope is that the Body Snatcher can only abandon their previous body when it's mortally wounded - this is usually self-inflicted and deliberate.
  • Braids of Barbarism: Braids are the warrior hairstyle. Vanye's father cuts off his braids when he casts him out as an outlaw ilin. Morgaine much later braids Vanye's hair in warrior style again, as a symbol that she believes his debt repaid and his status restored (and also an implied romantic gesture, as braiding a man's hair is extremely intimate, reserved for his close kin or his wife).
  • But Now I Must Go: An explicit part of Morgaine's mission, really: close the Gates on one world and then move on to the next. Fires of Azeroth ends with this trope actually happening, but the first two books invoke but then subvert it, ending with Morgaine and Vanye pursuing Roh through gates into the next world instead.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: almost everybody from Shiuan.
  • Cool Gate: well, they're there, and they do what it says on the tin, but they're not good for you.
  • Cool Horse: Siptah, Morgaine's warhorse.
  • Cool Sword: the tip of Morgaine's crystal sword Changeling opens a rift in reality which swallows anything it gets near.
  • Courtly Love: how Vanye behaves towards Morgaine.
  • Cowardly Lion: Vanye considers himself to be a coward, and his family agrees. He's also an Action Survivor who spends large sections of each book badly hurt, battered, half-starved and sleep-deprived to a degree that could make Bruce Willis wince, yet kicks numerous shades of butt along the way. After the battle of Nehmin, Morgaine calls him out on this: "Thee? Braid thy hair, Nhi Vanye. Thee's been too long on this road for that."
  • Crapsack World: Most of them. The worst and most hopeless is the setting for the second book, Well of Shiuan, which is sinking into the water; within a generation or two, no land will be left. And this was way before anyone was worrying about rising sea levels and global warming; no Green Aesop was meant.
    • The only possible rescue for this world is with the power of its Gate. Which Morgaine is there to destroy. Which she does, effectively destroying all hope for that world, because destroying all the Gates is the only way to protect the universe from another Time Crash. Quite a few refugees from Shiuan do manage to escape (by Morgaine's leave) before she and Vayne leave and seal the gate, however.
  • Culture Clash: Gallons of it between Vanye's Kurshin culture and Morgaine's ruthless sensibilities, then again between both of them and the people of Shiuan, especially the Khalur lords. This is also one of the roots of the conflict between Morgaine and Chya Zri/Liell/Roh.
  • Decadent Court: The Khal nobility of Ohtij-in. It is implied that the rest of the Shiua courts run much the same way.
  • Dirty Business: Neither Morgaine nor Vanye (especially Vanye) relish the antiheroic actions that become necessary along the way, and they're well aware of how morally objectionable some of these things are.
  • Dirty Coward: Liell.
  • Distant Epilogue: Fires of Azeroth has two—one at the beginning for Shiuan ( Kithan and Jhirun married and ruled over what remained while descending into addiction and madness respectively), and one at the end for itself. It reveals that Sin grew up to become a khemeis (human companion to the qhal) and that Roh remained in control and resisted the temptation of the Gate, choosing to have a happy, normal life where he was a beloved member of the community and die of old age.
  • Energy Weapon— Morgaine's backup weapon is a small energy-beam pistol. It's a significant marker that she's from a Science Fiction background.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: Nhi Vanye i Chya's native culture uses [Father's Clan Name] [Given Name] i [Mother's Clan Name].
  • Fantastic Racism: the Qhal detest humans, who they spread throughout the worlds of the Gates essentially as a supply of dumb labor. Humans, for their part, detest the Qhal for being their slave-masters. The Qhalur low fertility and thus low numbers mean that in the long run they're doomed, and in several of the worlds, the remaining Qhal are actually mostly only part-Qhal, mostly human crossbreeds who bleach their hair. Meanwhile, even being blond is often enough to get you treated with suspicion among humans, or indeed killed.
  • Fighting from the Inside:
    • The villain of the original trilogy used a time/space Gate to steal the body of the viewpoint character's cousin. In the third book, it's revealed that millennia of body-theft has eroded his soul to the point where his latest victim can take back control.
    • The fourth book includes arguments within the mind of another victim who retains much of both personalities. He's quite shocked to discover that the evil lord he'd battled is a much more reasonable person than he'd thought (despite taking over his body).
  • Functional Addict: Kithan, the more qhal-like son of the lord of Ohtij-in, is addicted to the Fantastic Drug akil. Vanye at first disdains him for this, but then realizes two things: he's never seen Kithan high when something actually important is going on, and given what kind of place Ohtij-in is, taking himself off the board by having a drug problem (which he pretends is much worse than it really is) is probably all that kept Kithan alive.
  • Grand Theft Me: can be done with sufficient knowledge of the Gates' workings. One character is taken over by an ancient qhal mind, though his own consciousness still remains inside as well. The same character suggests that Morgaine must have done this in the past, although she denies it, and it seems not to be true given revelations in book 4.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Almost everybody has understandable albeit not always sympathetic reasons for what they do and which side of the conflict they are on.
  • Hero AntagonistMerir and the Arrha. Morgaine invokes her likelihood of running into this trope several times, notably with her statement, "With devils, there is dealing. Sometimes far easier than with an honest man."
  • Heroic Bastard: Vanye is one of these and due to this fact is treated badly by his father and has some serious Cain and Abel action going on with his two older (legitimate) brothers.
  • Heroic Vow: These are a really important element in the story and in Vanye's characterization due to his Nhi obsession with honor, and when he does something stupid to keep his honor he's generally well aware of the stupidity of what he's doing. Oaths, their making, their consequences and the attendant difficulties, anguish and so on make for some major drama. He, Erij and Roh all have to deal with complications assorted with oaths they have made.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Morgaine does do plenty of questionable things, but nevertheless she has good reasons and history generally remembers her as much worse than she is. Everyone on Vanye's world, for example, thinks she deliberately got the army she raised against Thiye killed and is an evil, soulless witch. In reality, Zri/Liell/Roh betrayed her, and she actually tried to save whoever she could, but they wouldn't listen to her orders to retreat because she's a woman.
  • Homage: Elric of Melnibone is a clear influence on Morgaine, who is like Elric tall, white-haired and bears a sword that eats people.
  • The Horde: The Shiua and Hiua refugees. We do get a fairly good look at the personalities and culture of several of the constituent parts of this horde, but the Marshlander rabble don't get much focus.
  • Ice Queen: Morgaine, in spades, even visually due to her Mystical White Hair. It becomes clear in the fourth book that she hates herself for the death and destruction her mission causes, and pushes people away both to protect them from the dangers she faces, and because she considers herself an unlovable monster. Vanye eventually manages to get her to open up and tell him this, responding to the first with "I could never leave you" and to the second with a kiss, thereby finally Defrosting the Ice Queen.
  • I Choose to Stay: Morgaine and especially Vanye want to do this a couple of times, but don't get to. Jhirun and Kithan, however, do. As does Roh.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Morgaine explains that with the kind of stakes that ride on her quest to close the gates, she can't afford to be kind or honorable.
  • Kissing Under the Influence: Vanye and Morgaine's first passionate kiss happens after having to share an intoxicating drink with a hedge lord who deliberately uses the Loss of Inhibitions to make deception more difficult.
  • Last of His Kind: Morgaine is the last of her kind, both in that she's the last survivor of the team that set out to close the Gates, and the last of the pre-Qhal race. Vanye, meanwhile, is the last of his kind once they pass the first Gate except for his cousin, possessed by an enemy.
  • Manly Tears: "Vanye himself wept; a man might, at such a time." When Roh goes free.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Morgaine closing the Gates means that all their power is gone, and all, good and ill, that can be done with them.
  • May–December Romance: The Unresolved Sexual Tension between Vanye and Morgaine. She's older than the qhal elder Merir (who, as a qhal who actually looks old, is very old indeed), while he's twenty-one at the most. However, since she has programmed the gates to reset their ages back to when they first walked through one, they won't have to deal with the aging side of this trope.
  • Meaningful Name: Morgaine, who's named after the sorceress in the Arthurian Legend, Morgaine, aka Morgan Le Fay.
  • Mystical White Hair: Morgaine. The white hair indicates that she's not fully human, as well; it's one of the ways Qhal blood shows itself, though we find later that Morgaine is actually half-human, half of the lost race that preceded the Qhal.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The precursors created a system of star gates that slowly tore the fabric of reality apart. (This is not known until several hundred years after the network is finished.) Eventually they discover this, after which they then proceed to cause a energy cascade that wipes out their entire race, just to destroy the incredibly dangerous gates. Unfortunately, one survives and is copied to create another network by a second precursor race who are almost wiped out warring with each other over whether the gates are dangerous or not. Some remain trapped on worlds as Sealed Evil in a Can, and these fall under Abusive Precursors as they typically run slave empires. Morgaine is on a quest to clean up the mess the precursors left behind.
  • Older Than They Look: It is strongly implied in book IV that Morgaine had been on her quest for many decades if not centuries before she met Vayne, as she set up the gates to return her (and later Vayne himself) to the physical age she had when she went through her first gate.
  • Parasitic Immortality: It is possible to use a Gate to take over another's body, and do so pretty much indefinitely, but it was subsequently shown that the original personality tends to fade after many body swaps and may eventually lose control of the body to the current host.
  • Portal Network: the Gates allow travel between different worlds settled by the Qhal, as well as travel within a world and indeed Time Travel. The latter part is what especially shreds reality, unfortunately.
  • Portal to the Past: The Gates can be used in this way. They shouldn't be, but they can.
  • Power Limiter: Changeling's sheath is the only thing that can withstand the deadly gate at the tip of the sword and shut it down.
  • Precursors: The Qhal left behind a Portal Network of Cool Gates, which they themselves copied from a still older alien species. The humans who discovered this, rather than copying it like the Qhal did, are systematically destroying the network left behind by the Qhal. That's because the Gates can be used for Time Travel, and any Temporal Paradox caused by the Gates will trigger a Time Crash which will destroy civilization on each planet with a Gate. Such a Time Crash is precisely what wiped out the Qhal, leaving behind their Gates for humans to discover.
  • Purpose-Driven Immortality: Morgaine's quest to destroy the Gates will take far longer than a normal lifetime, but the Gates themselves can be used to extend one's life by physiological rejuvenation. When her quest is complete, she will no longer have either the ability or the need to extend her life further.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Subverted in the case of Liell - he looks like this at first but it quickly becomes clear that he's an Evil Chancellor and the Man Behind the Man to the thoroughly corrupt local regime.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Morgaine is the Blue Oni and Vanye the Red Oni, except of course the fact that Vanye is the one bound up by weight of tradition with an Honor Before Reason code of conduct.
  • Reset Button: Morgaine set up a system linked into the Gates so any time Vanye passes through one of them, his body will be returned to the state it was in when she set it up: healthy, rested, well-fed. Evidently her own use of this is why she doesn't need the Body Surf to remain young. Vanye's not entirely happy about this, because he doesn't feel he's reached a man's full growth ... and now he never will. But it saves his life at one point, when he's dying of internal injuries compounded by exhaustion, starvation, and stimulant overdose.
  • Ret-Gone: One of the issues with backtiming is this. In a prequel short story, we meet a qhal man and his family. In the next scene, the Time Crash has started; he's never been married and has no children.
  • Rōnin: Vanye, exiled for fratricide
  • Royally Screwed Up: the Lethen nobility. Kasedre would be The Caligula if he weren't just the latest (hopefully the last) of a line of mad hedge-lords. Not that it's their fault; Zri/Liell has been the Man Behind the Man for generations, assassinating each lord once a son has been provided and deliberately raising the boys to be bad rulers so he can run things. (Also, they have a serious inbreeding problem.)
  • Science Fantasy: reads like fantasy, but technically science fiction. Laser guns and stargates.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Morgaine claims to have murdered her pre-Qhal father because he raped her mother.
  • Temporal Paradox: The Gate network is inherently dangerous for a number of reasons, but the worst is the likelihood of "backtiming" causing extremely dangerous temporal paradoxes and breaking reality. One or more of these were what destroyed the Qhal civilization. Their precursors too
  • There Is Only One Bed: Vanye would sleep on the floor, but Morgaine puts her sheathed sword down the middle of the bed to divide it in two and insists that they share, because it's important that they both get their rest. Of course, this only makes the sexual tension between them worse.
  • Time Crash: The Gates can be used to travel through time. If anyone goes back in time and changes the past, a cataclysmic disaster will happen on each planet with a Gate; this already happened with the Qhal. Preventing this from happening again is what drives Morgaine to shutdown the Portal Network.
  • Time Police: In a short story prequel to the Morgaine Cycle, it's revealed that the precursors had Time Police whose job was to make sure that their Cool Gates weren't used to make large changes to the past. They did this not to preserve some "true timeline", but because if the past was changed too much it would lead to a truly catastrophic Time Crash. The Time Police eventually fail at their job, and the resulting Time Crash wipes out the precursors' galaxy-spanning civilization.
  • Transplanted Humans: The precursors put humans on different planets with various different starting conditions as experiments in the development of human society/culture, and then used their gates to travel into the future to see the results. However, one of the precursors used the gates to travel back in time and caused a Temporal Paradox, with the resulting Time Crash wiping out the precursors' galaxy-spanning civilization. The main characters use the precursors' Portal Network to travel from planet to planet, encountering feudal and tribal Transplanted Humans along the way.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Vanye's father hacks off his warrior's braid as an outward and severe sign, easily understood by anybody in Andur-Kursh, of stripping his honor from him and declaring him an outlaw above and beyond just making him swear Ilin-oath.
  • Unequal Pairing: Vanye feared it was literally a sin for him to fall in love with Morgaine, partly because he thought she was qhal and therefore soulless, but also because he was pledged to her service and found that confusing (since normally a warrior could only be pledged to the service of a male noble).
  • The Unfettered:
    • Morgaine has large helpings of this, as her entire purpose in life is to destroy the Gates, and she'll do almost anything to accomplish that, no matter who suffers as a result. Eventually her affection for Vanye begins to erode this.
    • In many ways, this is also the ideal for ilin - their sole drive is supposed to be the wishes of their liyo, with no higher moral considerations being relevant. Vanye repeatedly brings up that his personal honour is entirely subordinate to Morgaine's orders - whatever she tells him to do, he is supposed to do it, be it deception, theft, assassination or kinslaying, even if it's actively suicidal, her orders should be followed.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: between Vanye and Morgaine, and how. Unresolved until book 4, anyway.
  • Walking the Earth: The series dwells at length on the difficulties of poverty, hunger, danger and uncertainty inherent to a life living this trope - across multiple worlds. They don't particularly enjoy it, but it's inherent to their quest and, at least initially, their outlawry. When Morgaine and Vanye leave Roh to live in Shathan, she tells him that both she and Vanye will envy him his exile.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Skarrin is bored with existence, believing that not only does nothing new happen on his planet, but in the entirety of the space-time continuum, and that everything is incredibly pointless and inane. His and Morgaine's oblique discussion about a "bubble" and the fact that Morgaine's very existence is a big deal (since her father did something new when he shouldn't have been able to do), suggests this has a lot to do with the Gates warping time.
  • Weapons That Suck: Changeling, Morgaine's crystal gate-sword which, when unsheathed, opens a gate to what appears to be empty space. Air rushing into this portal sucks in nearby objects and people, never to be seen again.
  • Wretched Hive: Ra-Leth, a castle populated with bandits, where even children ambush travellers with poisoned weapons. Vanye explicitly likens the castle hall to "a nest of corruption". The credits in the graphic novel lampshade this.