This month’s Feature Article will be taking a look at C. J. Cherryh’s Fortress in the Eye of Time.
Fortress in the Eye of Time is one of those books that you will either love or hate, and it is a reminder of how subjective the analysis of a book really is. Opinions on the book seem to be polarized, and I don’t think I’d ever seen as many comments stating that a book was unreadable alongside so many five star reviews; people were either giving up, setting the book aside, or they were using words like beautiful and gorgeous to describe it. If I had read such commentary before actually reading Fortress in the Eye of Time, I might have wondered if everyone was talking about the same book. There really doesn’t appear to be any middle ground on this one, and I’m not sure my opinion is going to help you sort it out one way or another.
I’ve concluded that liking Fortress in the Eye of Time really comes down to a matter of taste, and it is one of those books you will need to determine for yourself whether or not it is worth reading. Be warned that this is a very long book; on the other hand, you certainly will get your money’s worth. However, many will find that the book reads too slow, is too long, and it spends too much time repeating the same subject matter; for others, the pace, the length, and the repetition provide a breadth and a depth that made it one of the best stories they had read. I tend to side with the former, and I honestly think the book is too long by at least twenty-five percent. Shortening it might have adjusted for the slow pace and the repetition without compromising the story in any way. Shortening it would have removed the frustration of waiting for something to happen. But again, I think it is a matter of taste. Indulgent might be the best way to describe Fortress in the Eye of Time, and I think you either grant Cherryh these indulgences and like the work, or you chafe at her excesses and dislike the work.
Simply put, you either accept Cherryh’s extremely long and slow opening or you do not. I have a pretty high tolerance for slow openings since I always assume the author is proceeding as they are for a reason, but I will admit that, more than once, I let out a groan when a new chapter began yet again with Maurl and Tristen doing the same as they had in the previous. Obviously, Cherryh was providing the foundation of Tristen’s character with the long opening sequence, without which the entire story has little meaning, but even though I completely understood why the length of the opening was so long, I still found myself saying: “I get it, let’s move on.” The opening became like a test of wills, with Cherryh seemingly trying the upper limits of my patience, almost daring me to set the book aside. However, I finally got to the point where I was going to get through the opening no matter what, and I actually began wondering how long she could continue to write with virtually nothing happening. So yes, the opening is too long; however, I do, with some reservation, recommend perseverance. Just get through the first seven chapters and take away a feeling of accomplishment after doing so; it’s not bad or poorly written, and it is interesting, but in the final analysis, it’s just too long.
Of course once you manage to slog through the first eight chapters, the next question arises: does it get any better after that long slow opening? Again, this may be a matter of taste, with an equal number of yes and no opinions. For me, the short answer is, no. It is still slow but with new characters, which at least gives the illusion of activity. Once finished with Maurl and Tristan in the opening, Cherryh takes us on a long slow journey through the intrigues and machinations of Cefwyn’s court. I applaud her attention to detail, and I don’t doubt her accuracy that this is how many royals might have lived, but once she convinced the reader of the Machiavellian court surrounding Cefwyn, I think there were passages that could have been omitted for a more energetic and active plotline. I will admit that I found the character of Idrys intriguing with his constant vigilance that became extreme to the point of paranoia.
Again, it is not a problem with Cherryh’s world building, but her time spent doing so, doing so without anything happening. An example here is the scene with Tristan and Uwen in the armory. In some ways, I did enjoy her detail here, but it came at a point in the story when I was yearning for something to happen since she was building to the climax at this point. It was a very nice scene if you wanted to read about the details of a medieval armory, but frustrating when you were expecting the story to move more dramatically to its conclusion; likewise for the assembly, the march, and the encampment scenes at the end of the story. Did we really need that level of detail at this point in the story? But herein lies the problem with this much detail: these scenes were longer than her action scenes that followed, which ironically made the action scenes seem too short. She almost exhausted me getting to the pivotal scenes, and then wrapped them up so quickly that I was left with a new frustration.
I hesitate to recommend this book, but even with many of my complaints outlined above, I did enjoy it quite a bit. The craft of Cherryh’s world building and character development is superb, although you may grow tired of her detail. Essentially, Fortress in the Eye of Time is a risky book to recommend. Liking or disliking it will become a matter of taste and expectations. The only way to discover which reader you will be is to start reading.