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C.J. Cherryh
HarperCollins EOS, 400 pages

C.J. Cherryh
C.J. Cherryh attended the U of Oklahoma and received a B.A. in Latin in 1964 before moving on to Johns Hopkins for an M.A. in Classics. Her awards include the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and Hugo Awards for her short story "Cassandra" and her novels Downbelow Station and Cyteen. She was Guest of Honour at Bucconeer, the 1998 World Science Fiction Convention, in Baltimore.

C.J. Cherryh Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Faded Sun Trilogy
SF Site Review: Finity's End
SF Site Review: The Dreaming Tree

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

As if keeping up with the Foreigner books and new volumes in the Merchanter universe wasn't enough, here comes the first volume in a new series, in its own brand new historical universe. And if the hallmark of a good C.J. Cherryh novel is its ability to completely draw you into the characters and the world they live in, while revealing as little as possible about what is actually going on, then Hammerfall is her most ambitious work yet.

Hammerfall is set on a desert world inhabited by a fairly primitive looking village and nomadic tribe culture. Our viewpoint character is Marak, a warrior and leader who has become mad. His madness is of a type that afflicts many: voices and images threaten death and destruction, and compel him to journey to a tower across the desert.

The Ila is gathering the mad together, and she tells Marak to go where the voices tell him. The story becomes an intense recounting of the dangers of crossing the desert. All the techniques that Cherryh has perfected and used in order to draw us into her characters she here uses to pull us into the landscape of her world.

When Marak and his companions reach the tower, we learn a little of what is going on. There is nanotech underlying everything, and the Ila is a refugee from an ages old war. Her old enemies aren't happy about what she's doing to their planet. Marak is sent back to warn her.

Here is where the reader realizes that the nominal storyline of Hammerfall is going to consist of not one, not two, but three harrowing journeys across the same expanse of desert. Marak is used to carry messages, and it's fairly hard not to wonder why people who have mastered the technology of manipulating matter at the atomic level can't make a phone call. If this were done by a first time writer, it would be laughable.

But this is C.J. Cherryh, so there has to be a reason for it. There are clues, and they seem to have to do with the nanotechnology, which is so pervasive in these people's culture that it may have superseded everything else. For even as Marak and the refugees are crossing the desert while ice asteroids pelt the planet, the real war is going on below the surface, in the bloodstreams of the people and animals as the people of the tower's nanoceles fight with those of the Ila. As Marak and his companions nanoceles adjust, they are able to communicate through the nanotech, and are always aware of where the others are. There is no need for other technologies of communication. But none of this is spelled out, and it's possible to read the clues in other ways.

So that's what we're left with. A novel that raises question after question about the characters, their history and their motivations, and provides fewer answers than any other C.J. Cherryh novel I can remember reading. (And that's saying a lot. How many of us figured out who fired the gun at the beginning of Foreigner before the answer was revealed in Inheritor?) The overwhelming message of Hammerfall is that the the real action is hidden from view, taking place below the surface, and that every journey you make reveals a little more of the truth. Hammerfall is a gripping, difficult novel which promises that future installments will reveal its greatness. C.J. Cherryh is as good a novelist as there is in science fiction, and it is a tribute to her high standards that her readers should have no problems believing in the promise of Hammerfall.

Copyright © 2001 Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson is becoming convinced that there isn't an SF writer alive who can resist shaking things up by dropping big rocks on a planet. His reviews also appear in The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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