C. J. Cherryh’s The Morgaine Saga
The genres of Science-Fiction and Fantasy Fiction come in many different forms: some good, some not so good. There are hybrids of both where the distinction between science and fantasy becomes blurred. A few are very definitely Sci-Fi, with a slight overlay of some traditional Fantasy tropes or themes. Others are more overtly Fantasy, where the Sword ‘n’ Sorcery is given prominence though with a quasi-scientific explanation. I have always favoured both since I like my escapist literature to come with at least a verisimilitude of realism (blame Tolkien and Herbert with all those maps and annals).
It’s quite a difficult trick to pull off and many fail to hit the right note, overegging the recipe on one side or the other. However one notable success of the Science-Fantasy sub-genre is the Morgaine Cycle by the American author C. J. Cherryh (Carolyn Janice Cherry: the ‘-h’ was a publisher’s suggestion to make her surname look more masculine for Sci-Fi readers).
The two characters at the centre of the inter-linked stories making up the saga are Nhi Vanye i Chya, a young untried warrior, and Morgaine, a mysterious woman of unknown origin. The opening book in the series begins in a quasi-Shogun age on some distant planet where we are first introduced to Vanye, the bastard cast-out scion of an aristocratic house living in exile from his people. He is a troubled youth, denied home or kin, down on his luck and hunted by his enemies. His melancholy nature is strangely engaging, tempered by an innocent and at times gentle soul. It is through his eyes that we experience the majority of the story.
The first book also introduces the shadowy character of Morgaine, a near legendary figure from the distant past of Vanye’s world, a person loathed and feared in equal measure, a calamitous harbinger of doom. Or so it would appear. In fact things are far more complicated and while avoiding any spoilers, I can say that the two become accidental companions, traversing a life-weary Universe, or series of Universes, pervaded by a sort of end-of-time sense of doom, like some vast clockwork toy slowly winding down. That air of inevitable fate, a kind of Twilight of the Gods, weaves in and out of the narrative so much that it almost becomes a character in its own right.
However Cherryh does not stop there in creating the tone of the Saga for all of the books are coupled with a deep sense of loss. Both Vanye and Morgaine are exiles, unwillingly so, but exiled never the less. One can feel their loss, their sense of dislocation as an almost physical thing. They visit places which can seem both heart-achingly familiar yet utterly foreign, always knowing that they are no more than visitors and the journey must – perforce – continue to its bitter end.
If the author has read the Old Norse sagas, their texts frequently laden with the heavy burden of fate, of exile and banishment to strange and sometimes wondrous or terrible places, then she has certainly learned from them and applied the same themes here and with profound effect. For any Irish person in particular, raised on our own historical tales of forced exile, there is something incredibly resonating here, an almost instinctive feeling for what the author is trying to convey.
The first books in the series were published in the late 1970s, and later packaged into one large volume, but the adventures of Vanye and Morgaine were left unfinished. After a long hiatus Cherryh returned to the story, but as with Frank Herbert and the Dune series or Asimov and the Foundation series, less is very much more. The final published work was largely out-of-synch with the earlier tales, the tone and feel of the story somehow different from what appeared nearly a decade before. The writing, while undoubtedly matured, was unfortunately empty of the raw energy and imagination of the first novels, almost as if Cherryh was daunted by the power and popularity of her two greatest creations and was unable to recapture the original magic formula.
A few more works followed in the same series, two graphic novels and an ‘interactive’ novel, but none were able to match the effect of the originals and have largely been forgotten. For many, myself included, that is a good thing for it is the original three novels (and the associated omnibus) that stand the test of time. They are without doubt some of the best Science-Fantasy works ever produced and can be compared to the greatest books in the better recognised genres. Cherryh treats her readers like intelligent, thinking, feeling human beings and they are given a story with that in mind. The Morgaine Saga is no simple Swords ‘n’ Sorcery affair, or yet another Tolkien clone. It is proper fiction from a proper writer, at the top of her game, and clearly loving every moment of her craft. It is food for the soul, not just escapist pop-lit and if you’re in the mood for something different then I highly recommend the stories of Vanye and Morgaine.
The books of the Morgaine series are mainly available from online retailers, and come in various editions. The original three, or an omnibus of the three (called variously the Morgaine Cycle, the Morgaine Series, or the Chronicles of Morgaine), are now only available for new in US editions. The fourth novel is always published separately and can be purchased by all you completetists out there.
C.J. Cherryh’s wonderful c.1999 personal webpage is here. Yes, that is how the internet used to look!