Gate of Ivrel, by CJ Cherryh

Published 1976
Review by Tim

The Gates were the ruin of the qhal. This is the first sentence of the novel that launched the career of one of speculative fiction's brightest lights. Although some of Cherryh's later work surpasses Gate of Ivrel in technical virtuosity and originality, it concedes those successors no ground in terms of beauty and emotional power. Gate of Ivrel stands among that class of tales well worth re-reading.

The premise that propels the plot is science fictional, but the feel is pure fantasy. The Gates were created by the qhal, who used them to travel instantaneously from place to place, and also through time. Strict prohibitions were placed on traveling backward in time, as theory and grim experience indicated that even a minor temporal anomaly would result in dire consequences for the fabric of reality. The qhal lived as lords - almost as gods - setting events into motion, then jumping ahead in time to observe the results, while their subjects (including humans) lived and died through the intervening years.

It was inevitable that somewhere, somewhen, the prohibition on travel into the past would be violated, and so it was. The anomalies generated by this act rippled through space-time in a self-sustaining chain reaction that tore reality asunder, bringing catastrophe to unnumbered worlds and destroying the qhal. Only a faded remnant of that race survived. And the Gates.

As humanity picked up the pieces of their own shattered civilizations, they realized they could never be safe so long as a single one of the Gates continued to exist. A team was assembled, whose mission was to pass through each of the Gates, sealing them as they passed, until all were destroyed. This was a task that could span lives and generations. It was not appreciated how stern a test it would prove to be. There were but five members of the task force remaining when they passed through a gate into Andur-Kursh, a region of a world ruled by human horse-lords. The level of technology here was more or less equivalent to that of ninth century earth. Here the mission failed at last, before the power of the qhalur-lord Thiye, causing great loss of life among the human horse clans. Only one member of the task force survived, caught in stasis within a gate-field, unchanging and unaware.

All of this is background, and Cherryh covers it concisely in the first few pages, mostly as readings from various historical records. The story is told from the point of view of Nhi Vanye i Chya, a bastard scion a noble clan. He belongs to perhaps the second or third generation born since the disaster at Ivrel. As the tale begins, Vanye is outlawed for the killing of one of his legitimate brothers, condemned by his father to become ilin, a status somewhat analogous to becoming ronin in medieval Japan.

An ilin is a masterless warrior who can be killed without consequence. If he is accepted into a legitimate lord's service, he must either serve that lord for a year, or perform any single task set on him by his lord, even if it requires more than a year to accomplish. If the ilin survives his service, he is reckoned to have requited his crime; if he dies, he is accounted an honorable suicide.

Vanye accidentally triggers the release of the sole surviving member of the task-force charged with sealing the Gates. For this survivor, Morgaine, the events at Ivrel are still recent history - she has no awareness or memory of the time that has passed. Still reeling from the scope of her failure and the loss of her friends, she is yet driven to complete her team's mission. When she finally understands her situation, she realizes she'll need an informant and guide to bring her up to date on local politics and conditions. Morgaine ruthlessly exploits a "quirk of custom" (my term for a "legal technicality") to gain Vanye's unwilling service - a service which Vanye feels honor-bound by his ilin-oath to accept.

The rest of the story follows a standard "quest" format - ie, their adventures in overcoming and eluding the obstacles between them and the successful completion of their mission. The human elements are, however, far beyond the standard. As the story is told from Vanye's perspective, we know at all times as much of his thoughts, emotions and motives as he himself does. The same is not true of Morgaine, whom we know only through her actions, as witnessed by Vanye, and by our knowledge of her mission. Her character is complex and occult, and the reader is faced with the task of reading her through Vanye's not-always-accurate interpretation of her motives. Gradually the story unfolds her image: a woman tortured by the things she must do regardless of cost to herself or any other, knowing that failure means the sure destruction of everything she loves, and has left behind. In this regard Vanye becomes at once her hated conscience, and the personification of everything she would protect.

Gate of Ivrel also far exceeds the norm for fantasy stories in the author's attention to detail. Morgaine and Vanye do not trip blithely through the wilderness without mussing a hair on their heads. It rains, sometimes. The weather turns cold. Sleeping in armor is damned uncomfortable! Most of all, Cherryh's treatment of horses is entirely realistic. Horses are not motor vehicles; you can't just mount up and gallop from point A to point B. Horses need to be fed and curried and cared for. They need to be cooled and rubbed down after exertion. And they have minds of their own, which sometimes works to their riders' advantage, and sometimes not.

Gate of Ivrel is both a single and complete story, and the starting point of a series. Morgaine and Vanye appear again in Well of Shiuan (1978) and Fires of Azeroth (1979). The three books together form a trilogy. After a time, Cherryh found she had a bit more to reveal about her characters, and so Exile's Gate followed in 1988. All of these novels are highly recommended.

August, 1998

Detail from Michael Whelan's cover painting for Gate of Ivrel. A full version of this graphic can be found on the Glass Onion Graphics pages.