Cherryh’s novel is of a type with Martin and other politically involved fantasy; Serpent’s Reach takes a science fictional approach to this, but over a far shorter volume of pages.

The characters of Serpent’s Reach are well-written and stylish, in the main; Raen, our main character, is a great figure, akin to something from Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Motivated and transfigured by revenge, she is a powerfully written character, who is an extraordinary tactician and whose plans don’t become clear until the very climax of the novel. Equally, we see her as a deeply human and yet alien character; she proves deeply empathetic, as well as intelligent and capable, which makes for a great character. The rest of the cast are a little weaker – whilst Jim and Pol have a single strong characteristic each, the others are somewhat two-dimensional (Morn and Moth especially thin), which doesn’t lend itself to a strong novel or powerfully effecting plot.

The plot itself is much better than this would imply; Serpent’s Reach has a well-done political element with excellent integration of a truly alien alien in the form of the majat. Much more violent than Pennterra, but with an even more intricate plot, it deals well with the complications of the caste and House elements that interplay within the human society and their impact on interactions with the aliens. The way that Cherryh plays out the revenge plot and the political intricacies of the novel together works incredibly well, especially with the compassion of Raen towards both the azi and the majat. That the different elements of the plot are so well combined and neatly tied off at the end of the novel, drawing together so many of the elements of the story, is a credit to Cherryh’s writing skill; and that Serpent’s Reach is well-written as a piece of world-building adds strongly to the plot. The different castes and natures of the humans, highlighted by Raen strongly, and the nature of the majat themselves as an alien hive-mind species, is well-dealt with, especially the different natures of the different hives; and this all adds to the beautifully-handled complexity.

All in all, despite its slimness, Serpent’s Reach is a strong and complicated novel; but Cherryh’s characterisation could be much better, which lets an otherwise masterful work down somewhat.
Cherryh's Dreamstone, taking place in an alternate Celtic past (I say alternate because of the presence of the Sidhe and the legendary nature of events, and Celtic because of the names and legends - the Sidhe do play a central role) reminds me a lot of Jack Vance's Lyonesse, in many ways.  It is immersed in the culture and style of its time, however, in a manner that's more reminiscent of the brilliant Broken Sword by Poul Anderson; and that combination of style and historicity makes this a good bridge between the two, though not on the level of the Anderson saga.

Cherryh's story is more focused on the Sidhe Arafel and her contest with Death than anything else; it takes place over generations, with dreamlike Rip van Winkle elements and a few typical fae-related tropes, but we still are involved with the various human characters, however briefly they flicker as candles in front of Arafel - we follow one, then another, then another, never multiple simultaneously, and all through a prism centred on Arafel herself.  That creates a certain unreality to each of them, but it also gives us a sense of a sadness in Arafel (one that Whovians should recognise in the Doctor; that they often don't is a result of poor writing); it is her character that is built up, over time.

The setting is lush and beautiful, with names of people and places clearly Celtic (Irish?) in origin; the whole story is lush and built on this terrain of green hills and dark forests, in a very Homeric savage style - reminiscent indeed of the land of the Phaeacians, but also simply being the idyllic paradise that Cherryh wants to create to place her savage battles, dark politics and death in.  Indeed, those horrors twist the idyll, and that is the point - it is the story of destructive man against nature, in some ways, and not terribly subtle about it.

All in all, Cherryh's book is lush and beautiful, with a wonderful character; but The Dreamstone's supporting cast is weak, and the plot thin, which rather damages it in my eyes.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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