Fortress of Ice
by C.J. Cherryh
Review by Edward Carmien
Eos Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0380979047
Date: 01 November, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Cherryh starts Fortress of Ice with a recap of previous events. Even for those who have read the series, this is a good read. She continues with more ordinary remembrances in the early chapters, helping to set the scene for this dynastically complex tale. King Cefwyn’s sons are friends, but they are also full of teenage trouble. The bastard Otter is an heir to a kind of magic that makes it hard for him to practice King Cefwyn's religion, and he leaves the capital under a cloud, returning home to the peasant's shack he has called home all his life.
Luck, both good and bad, swirls around all these events, and Otter's mother, a witchy sort, is suspected of having a hand in ongoing events. Tristen, the simple-minded summoned man of the first book of the series, is no longer simple-minded. Visited by Otter, he counsels the boy to go by his true name, Elfwyn, a name out of a deposed dynasty, a name to conjure by. Elfwyn accepts his name and returns to face his mother, and events cavalcade on from there amidst winter storms and eldritch cold.
Cherryh utilizes the teenager-has-angst-and-runs-off-on-his-own-unexpectedly trick once too often here. Both Otter/Elfwyn and Aewyn pull this shenanigan on their elders, and there comes a time when a reader asks how dim the adults are hereabouts. This quibble aside, Fortress of Ice carries on this successful fantasy series effectively by turning a new page in a serial story that reached a significant sense of closure at the end of the previous novel. By moving the focus of the conflict to the next generation, Cherryh allows for a bit of change to creep into the world.
King Cefwyn has matured, for example, and his baby daughter represents a significant political change, as she will be regent of a neighboring kingdom in her mother's place. Tristen is more knowing, more powerful, more mysterious -- the embodiment of a long dead historical figure, he has outgrown the handicap of his flawed summoning. And Tarien, Elfwyn’s mother, is shrewdly re-envisioned as significantly and magically dangerous in her own right, quite a change from her early portrayal as Cefwyn's bedmate and mundane dynastic enemy.
Cherryh's prose is as razor-sharp as ever; keen as the shards of ice that wait for the unwary traveler in these pages. Her trademark approach to fantasy is that of a realist: horses tire and require care; exposure to cold bites the skin, and theocratic politics aren't always rational. There's still plenty of magic to go around: Elfwyn has it (as does his "Gran"), Aewyn has it, Tristen has it, the King has some, as does his Queen, Ninevrise, and of course imprisoned Tarien has plenty…along with a surprise player or two who return to the stage.
While it is often unwise to pick up a Cherryh series novel out of order, Fortress of Ice could serve as a starting point for readers new to her work. If one can follow the sometimes laborious inner monologues of those under stress, one is rewarded with a rich reading experience that follows deep characters as they make their way through travails not merely of swords and sorcery, but the inner struggles of the psyche.