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The Morgaine Saga
by Séamas Ó Sionnaigh
Science-Fiction and Fantasy Fiction come in many forms, some good some not so good. There are hybrids of both, Science-Fantasy mixes where the distinction between science and fantasy becomes blurred. Some are very definitely Sci-Fi, with a fantasy overlay, others are more overtly Fantasy, where the fantastical is given a quasi-scientific explanation. I have always tended to favor both, since I like my escapist literature to come with at least a verisimilitude of realism (blame Tolkien with all those maps and annals).
It’s often 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 is the Morgaine Cycle by 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 central characters are Vanye, and Morgaine herself. It begins in a quasi-Shogun age era on some distant planet, where we are introduced first to Vanye, the bastard cast-out scion of an aristocratic house living in ignoble exile. He is a troubled young man, 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 and he becomes an invaluable guide and companion as we experience the story largely through his eyes.
We soon meet Morgaine, a near legendary figure from the distant past of Vanye’s world, someone loathed and feared in equal measures, a calamitous harbinger of doom. Or so she 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 world 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 story so much so it almost becomes a character in its own right. However Cherryh does not stop there for this is coupled with a deep sense of loss and exile. Both Vanye and Morgaine are exiles, unwillingly so, but exiled never the less. One can feel their loss, their sense of dislocation. 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 inevitable end.
If Cherryh has read the Old Norse sagas, with 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, and 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 later work is largely out-of-synch with the earlier tales, the tone and feel of the book somehow different from what appeared nearly a decade before. The writing, while undoubtedly matured, has unfortunately less 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 either genre. The reader is treated like an intelligent, thinking, feeling human being and is given a story with that in mind. This 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 to you.
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.