May 25, 2008

Chernevog by C.J. Cherryh

Chernevog is the follow-up to Rusalka. It takes place three years after the events of Rusalka. The characters are the same, the setting in the same, and the story is such a direct continuation that it makes you look back on the events of the first book in a different way. The fact that this is a direct sequel means I can’t give you a plot summary without spoiling Rusalka for anyone interested in reading it. Even picking up this book to read what it said on the back cover before finishing Rusalka was a mistake, as I learned the hard way (not too smart of me, I know). So I apologize in advance for the vagueness of this post.

Since I can’t talk about the plot, I will instead talk about things that are true of both books. For example, I never got around to explaining how magic works in these books. Here's how it is: We’re all constantly wishing for things in life. But in this world, wizards have to be careful what they wish for, because it may very well come true. At first glimpse this sounds great, but what happens if you wish someone you care about harm in a moment of anger? What happens when wishing for rain in a town means a draught some miles away? Wishes have consequences, and they come at a price. There's also the fact that what we wish isn't always necessarily what we need. Wizards are very well-aware of this. But they are also aware that to want is an essential part of human nature. This is why most wizards in Cherryh’s book choose to give up their hearts and put them in familiars like crows or owls or bears.

But two of the main characters of this book are wizards who decide to keep their hearts, and the fact that they have to constantly watch themselves and see what they want is part of what drives the plot. They keep their hearts because they want to be able to give their love to those around them, but they know that they have to wish responsibly, and to avoid wishing for too much.

Chernevog (like Rusalka in some ways) is also a story about trying to go on with your life when you’ve been hurt almost beyond endurance. It’s about learning to trust again, and allowing yourself to feel. I think that what I like the most about Cherryh is how psychologically complex (and thus how believable) her characters are. Then there's something related to this - the fact that she doesn’t let you pick sides. Nothing in these stories is black and white, and even you, the reader, have to decide who deserves your trust and who doesn’t. Which isn’t easy.

Of all the weird responses I get when I tell people I like fantasy (which have included “wow, I thought you were smart”), the kind that baffles me the most is the “oh, I have no patience for fantasy at all…I like stories about real people with real emotions dealing with real life” kind. The situations that Cherryh’s characters go through, the ones that make them weight their wants and needs, struggle to communicate more effectively and decide whether or not to trust one another, are not, of course, realistic. But their emotional responses to those situations are – how could they not be? How could an author ever write about emotions that do not belong to the human emotional spectre? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there are limits to the human imagination. But when it comes to feelings, doesn’t imagining one mean that it can be felt, and therefore that it is real? It doesn’t take much of an effort to imagine the same psychological struggles Cherryh’s characters go through taking place in the real world. In fact, I think it takes a much bigger and more stubborn effort to be unable to imagine it.

But back to the book. Like Rusalka, Chernevog is complex and deliciously atmospheric. But I have to say that I enjoyed Rusalka more. I’m not saying that this is an inferior book. It’s just that the fact that it’s a direct continuation means that it’s more of the same. I should have taken a break before reading it. Remember what I said about Rusalka being intense? Well, the same is true in this case, but the problem was that the intensity began to get to me after a while. This is a compliment to Cherryh, really – it means that she can draw me into her character’s tensions so effectively that after a while they begin to weight on me. I look forward to Yvgenie, but I’m going to have to take a bit of a break first.


  1. I hate responses like that to reading fantasy, small minded idiots! I know what you mean sometimes about loving a book and not quite liking the follow up as much because it doesn't have the initial attraction, that originality. It does sound like a great series though. I like the idea of being aware of magical consequences. One that is common is wishing for more money as it could mean someone close to you dies and you inherit from them.

  2. Oh, you are so making me want to get my hands on these! That whole concept of how wishing works for wizards is enough all on its own to have me intrigued.

  3. So when this happens and you have been intensely involved in the book, do you end up dreaming about the characters or scenes? I do. I was reading Robert Jordan's the Wheel of time series, two of them in a row, and by the end it was all i was dreaming about, every night, endlessly, Ran and the war and the when I get these books I'll have to see if I find them as intense too! You sure make me wish i had them right here though, they sound fascinating. Thanks, Nymeth!

  4. Rhinoa: yup, small-minded idiots...ah well, they are missing out. This is a great series, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did if you pick it up. There's an example in the books that is sort of like that. Wishing for someone you love to "always remain safe" could mean they die, because the dead will always be, after all, safe from further harm.

    Debi: It is a great concept. I hope you enjoy these!

    Susan: Yes! That does happen to me, and it did with these books, as well as with Little, Big by John Crowley earlier this year.

  5. I get the attitude too, when I'm seen with a fantasy book. I have a reputation as the "serious reader" - and people just can't reconcile the fact that I can read Dostoevsky, Terry Pratchett, George R.R. Martin, Jeffrey Deaver -- and love them all.

    Thankfully we serious readers have high self-esteem and will not bother with lesser, narrow-minds. ;p

    And I know what you mean about having to take a break first. Cherryh writes intense prose (although she did write a "Lois & Clark novelisation once).

    I think she is just a really intelligent writer who don't insult her readers by dumbing down, so sometimes I really have to catch up with her. And some of her more intense books have to be re-read - that's when I catch the more subtle revelations that I miss the first time.

    But if you ever decide to pick up Cherryh again - her "Morgaine" series is going to blow your mind. The character of Morgaine is one of the most strong-minded character I have ever read. Cherryh wrote her as something out of legends, something mythic and dangerous.

    But then, it also takes a lot of effort to get through.

  6. Dark Orpheus: People really do have trouble accepting that someone can not only like but take seriously both "mainstream fiction" and fantasy. It's like people expect me to at the very least have the decency to be ashamed of it or to admit it's a guilty pleasure. But I don't oblige :P
    And yes, she IS an intelligent writer, and I like that about her, even if it does demand an effort to keep up. I do want to read more of her stuff, so thank you for recommending the Morgaine series!

  7. "In fact, I think it takes a much bigger and more stubborn effort to be unable to imagine it."
    I had a literature professor once long ago who opened the semester with a lecture on "THE RIDICULOUS, JUVENILE, INSIPID WASTE OF TIME THAT IS FANTASY FICTION."
    She ended the rant with a request that we bring her examples of some of our favorite prose - I brought her an unidentified excerpt from "Mythago Wood". Apparently, she enjoyed it - she asked me if she could borrow the book, and so I brought it to her. She didn't think it was very funny at all. I didn't think it was very funny, either when semester grades were posted.

  8. Ken: lol! okay, it really must not have been funny at all when the grades were posted, but I still think it's beyond awesome that you did that :D And I really need to read Mythago Wood!


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