DAW is reissuing C. J. Cherryh classics in single-volume sets. The process began some years ago with the single-volume reissue of Cyteen and then the Arafel series (The Dreaming Tree). In January of 2000, The Faded Sun, an ominbus of the trilogy, appeared. In March 2000, it was the first three volumes of the Morgaine novels, lacking Exile's Gate for completeness.
Cherryh herself describes the Morgaine novels as "Fantasy," and certainly they can be read that way, but in my opinion they represent one of the most persuasive fusions in all of science fiction, inviting comparison to Gene Wolfe's Sun books and Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home. Cherryh's novels center on a hero with a sword-like weapon that is, in reality, something like a wormhole or a black hole. The "abyss" it throws its victims to is not their Hell; it is either time and space elsewhere or the crushing extinction of absolute gravity. Morgaine the "Witch" is armed with a Stormbringer crafted by science, and the Gates are advanced scientific devices that provide a function little different from the spacefaring "jump" mechanism of Cherryh's other novels. The difference is that the gates have been altered by less technologically knowledgeable people (the qhal), and the alteration has marred them in some terrible way that makes them shift time as well as space.
But the human inhabitants of the Gate worlds can only understand the gates as supernatural artifacts, and the gates have been disguised as such, made to resemble the dolmens, menhirs, and monoliths of Stonehenge. They are controlled, to the degree that is possible, by a humanoid race known as "qhal," descendants of the scientists who discovered the gates and modified them. On each planet, the qhal guard the scientific reality of the gates in the trappings of superstition. For the humans of each planet (except for Azeroth), the qhal are incarnate demons and their tyranny a yoke to be thrown off. Until we arrive at Exile's Gate, Morgaine's superior understanding of the gate technology is her best weapon. In the final volume, her adversary is not qhal but a survivor, like her, of the original race that invented the gates, and on that axle turns the suspense.
For novels of action, the amount of cultural delineation Cherryh manages to work in to each book is amazing. One senses beneath the terrain of the novels miles of fully imagined soil. The medieval cultures of four planets where she and her companion Vanye hunt down the dangerous gates are each a unique world. The feudal, clan cultures of Vanye's homeland, mountainous Ivrel, are reminiscent of Spain during the era of Roland and the Cid. Having set this gate to self-destruct, they move on to the drowning territory of Shiuan, inhabited by a grim peasant culture of barrows folk, Celtic in their folklore, rather like lowland Scotland. On Ivrel, clan alliance and honor were all, and Vanye and Chya Rho haul that emotional baggage with them through the saga; here, humankind has been subjugated as illiterate families of scavengers or slaves to the qhal. The third planet, forested Azeroth, is inhabited by elvish, pacific humans, by their protectors, angelic, wise qhal, and by a sentient, non-human species whose ent-like strangeness lends to a medieval world more akin to Middle Earth than history. Finally, the fourth novel, added ten years later, is inhabited by clans again, but small groups with Balkan ferocity, demon-infested superstitions worthy of Vlad Tepes, and pragmatic, politic loyalties rather than high-minded ideals.
Each novel builds a richly imagined culture, with language, mythology, literature, and politics. Each culture is carefully defined and fleshed out while the compelling urgency of story line carries us from page to page. Vanye's obsession with honor is a key to the action in the book that takes place on his own planet, a weapon that Liell, the qhal possessing his pursuing cousin Rho, can use against him, and a strange, troublesome anachronism on each other succeeding planet, source of conflict and confusion.
In the first book, Gate of Ivrel, Vanye and Morgaine encounter each other when she "returns" after escaping death through a gate during a battle which for her ended only weeks ago, but for Vanye is centuries' old history and the source of human hatred for her. As they make their way across the mountains to the main gate, they are pursued by a vengeful army whose leaders, qhal and Vanye's Chya cousin Rho, take them through the gate to the next world. In Shiuan, again, Morgaine is unable to prevent her pursuers from passing through, and it is their disruptive presence in peaceful Azeroth that drives the action forward to the conclusion of original trilogy. Each succeeding world is linked to its precessors by garbled history, evolved culture, and even linguistic ties (for example, "Chya" becomes "Chia" becomes "Chei" as we approach Exile's Gate).
Through the four novels, we watch love grow and evolve between Morgaine, only part-human and from a culture millennia advanced technologically from these Iron Age "horse and sword" worlds, and her vassal/companion Nhi Vanye i Chya, a hero with a sense of self-preservation he calls cowardice and layers of guilt (kinslayer, vassal to the arch enemy of humankind). The developing relationship of Morgaine and Vanye is Cherryh's best exposition of an obsessive theme: the disadvantaged man attempting to live up to his unnervingly powerful mistress' expectations. It may be the longest courtship in the history of fiction, unless we count Richardson's Clarissa. By the time they have accepted each other as lovers, the rules and boundaries of their partnership as so clear and fixed that love simply names what they have built.
As much as we come to understand the heroes, the secondary characters who pass us by as we move from world to world engage our interest, and we leave them behind regretfully. Vanye's cousin Rho is on the edge of three novels, struggling with the alien presence in his mind of the body-snatching qhal wizard Liell, his own honor compromised by the devious, unscrupulous qhal. The feisty barrows girl, Jhirun, comes dangerously close to taking center stage in Well of Shiuan, and we cheer to learn that after the novel ended, she became queen of what remained on her drowning world. In Fires of Azeroth, it is Sin, the human boy who aspires to be a forester and khemeis to a qhal, and in Exile's Gate, Chei ep Kantory, the fierce young warrior they rescue only to learn how different the concepts of truth and honor can be far from Ivrel. The final novel takes the questions of identity that drifted around the possessed Rho and draws them to center of the action, as Chei gives himself up, for revenge on Vanye, to the qhal-possessed Lord Gault, and then Chei, Gault, and the qhal struggle for mastery of the self that contains them.
Gate of Ivrel was one of Cherryh's first published novels, and it won numerous awards. With the Faded Sun and her undervalued masterpiece, Hunter of Worlds, this adds up to an amazing beginning to a career. More amazing, that Cherryh has sustained that quality for more than twenty-five years.
Cherryh's own website is www.cherryh.com. You may want to purchase direct from Cherryh the two graphic novels she and her friend Jane Fancher created for Gate of Ivrel. Interesting variants on the stories I consider among her best work, and sure to become collector's items.
For a thorough, accurate bibliography of Cherryh's work, providing both titles, publication dates, and awards, visit sfsite.com. Stark, but read the headnote and you'll find lots of information. Another excellent source of more diversified stuff on Cherryh and her work is Shejidan, an evolving fan site.