Hammerfall by C J Cherryh

Hammerfall book cover
Rating 8.5/10
The mad man fled across the desert, and everybody followed

Despite a previous good experience with her book Serpent’s Reach, due to an almost total lack of availability in audio while I was growing up, I’d largely missed out on C J Cherryh, a rich and complex science fiction author so well respected she recently had an asteroid named after her. With my liking for journey stories and exploring different cultures, Hammerfall seemed like a very good place to start.

Marak Trin Tain is mad. Since the age of six he’s heard the voices, whispering his name and calling him east, and for over 20 years he’s concealed the fact, even as he stood beside his father Lord of Kais Tain who rebelled against the rule of the god like Ila. Now however, betrayed by his father, with his mother and sister disowned, Marak is just another prisoner on his way to the Ila’s city of Oburan with the rest of the mad. The Ila however has her own purposes, and in Marak, a skilled warrior and desert traveller, she sees an opportunity to find out just why some of her people are being called east. After all, the Il has ruled this desert planet for five hundred years, fugitive of a war between the stars, and if the legacy of that war is finally catching up with her she needs to know. Thus, Marak is sent eastward with a caravan of the mad, bargaining the safety of his family with the Ila, a journey which will take him far into the desert, bring him love, hardship and knowledge greater than he ever could’ve imagined, since the Ila’s enemies are massing and soon the hammer will fall.

By rights, Hammerfall should be a very difficult book to read. Apparently, Cherryh pioneered a rather unique way of discussing other cultures, by writing from a third person perspective, but only giving details in that perspective that were significant to the protagonist. Thus, a lot of things which someone would do for granted as part of their world or culture are simply held as background, if not actively invisible. This means that Cherryh, far from overloading us with info dumps or long discourses of polysyllabic history, simply drops us straight into the principal character’s experience, and expects us to cope. Furthermore, since Marak’s world is one where firearms are considered rare, the tone and style is very much the sonorous, measured tone of a heroic epic, and when we do run across advanced technology or science fiction concepts, they’re always interpreted through Marak’s experience. Yet, despite this, the book is absolutely captivating.

Part of this, is the book’s sheer immediacy. Frank Herbert’s Dune is probably the most famous desert in science fictional history, yet never on Arrakis did I get quite as visceral a sense of what it feels like to trek through sand with the sun beating down, what waking on a rolled mat with a dust dry mouth would feel like, or how life can hang literally on a thread when pitching a tent against an oncoming sandstorm. Indeed, Cherryh pulls an incredibly clever sleight of hand with Marak, since while Marak himself is well versed in the lore of the Lakht (the deep desert), those around him are not, thus his observances of others acquiring skills, and his genuine concern for whether those around him will live or not also give us information about the world and the ways people survive without compromising Cherryh’s focus.

In terms of characters, I was particularly disappointed with one review in the SF Reader which called the characterisation in Hammerfall simple. Though on paper Marak seems like a pretty typical hero, son of a desert prince, skilled in combat, leading a quest into the wilderness, the ways Cherryh uses him to tell her story are anything but. Marak might be at rock bottom that rare and wonderful thing, just a plane nice guy, however the decisions he has to make, first for the survival of his companions in the desert, then for the survival of his entire people become more and more difficult as the plot goes on. For example, when one woman of Marak’s caravan starts exchanging sexual favours for extra rations, it is not conservative prudery that makes her actions problematic, but the very real possibility that without full rations her clients could die on the march. Marak even on one occasion manages to justify one action which would be considered as universally immoral (several reviews condemn him for it), yet both my lady and I found ourselves oddly in sympathy with Marak’s motivations given the situation at the time.

I also enjoyed the way Cherryh used Marak to let us experience a culture and set of assumptions very different to our own. In most speculative fiction these days, polygynous marriage (more than one wife), is almost inevitably the province of either unpleasant male characters, or semi chauvinistic erotic fantasies. Even in those few instances such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time where all characters involved are sympathetic and complex, it can often feel more like the male character has an open marriage with a couple accepted affairs on the side, (my lady and I are still convinced Min was Rand’s actual wife), rather than that he is literally “married,” i.e. has a close, mutually loving and supportive relationship, to more than one woman at once.

Here however, Cherryh completely subverts expectations. I was initially disappointed that Marak seemed to be getting together with one lady, leaving another perfectly nice character out in the cold. When however said first lady (herself from a tribe who regularly have multi partner marriages), made taking on the second as a condition of her getting together with Marak, it felt oddly correct. Indeed, the three of them together definitely form a family, a single unit, and while there is a difference in the way Marak considers both wives; one being more his equal, the other being someone whom both he and his other wife mutually care for, at the same time there is no denying he loves both, and both love each other, indeed scenes of the three of them cuddling together, touching affectionately and on occasions sexually were quite beautiful.

Oddly for a book set in such a downright harsh world, told with epically doom-laden prose, Cherryh really managed to create characters I cared about, from Tofi; an inexperienced boy suddenly faced with responsibility, to Captain Memnanon, head of the Ila’s guard, a position which in another novel might just be a faceless henchmen, but here was a surprisingly complex character.

With Marak’s companions among the mad too, Cherryh created entirely lovable characters, from the gentle Norit to the fiercely independent Hati. Even Marak’s mother and sister when they appear have a definite presence and personality of their own.

The Ila is a wonderfully unpleasant villain, an entitled god queen who ranges from conniving chess player to being simply spoiled; there’s something especially vile about someone who insists on living in luxury whilst those around them have so little, even going as far as bathing in the drinking water during a desert journey.

My only issue with the Ila, is that I honestly did not know what hold she had over the people. From her priests (who are generally disrespected among the tribes people and villagers), to her guards and record taking servants, I was never exactly clear why people followed her, particularly since only the priests seem to actually give her any religious significance. It was implied the Ila had various forms of advanced technology at her disposal, in particular some way of supplying water at her capital city, however we did not really see enough evidence of this, especially to explain the extreme loyalty of characters such as Memnanon. This is perhaps a problem with Cherryh’s single character focused approach, since while we learn a great deal about the desert tribes, the villagers and Marak’s fathers abortive rebellion against the Ila, we don’t really learn as much about other aspects of the world.

Pacing wise, though many reviews criticise Hammerfall for being slow or repetitive, mostly due to Marak’s repeating visions and the unfolding minutiae of trekking through the desert, I did not find this the case myself for the first half of the book, since I was so much invested in the characters journey and wondering what was waiting for them at the end of it. I do freely admit however, I have a liking for journey stories, so it is entirely possible I’m inclined to be more patient with such things.

The pace did start to lag however during the book’s second half. Whilst we get some realistically sketchy explanation and the introduction of a different faction, the second half essentially boils down to Marak being sent back to the Ila with a message, then leading a massive group of people back across the ground he just covered, whilst the planet is under threat of disaster. Whilst this section had its moments, the impending sense of doom, the deals and compromises Marak needed to make; not the least with the Ila, at the same time, I did expect a little more escalation than we got. True, we’d gone from a small group of people travelling the desert, having to learn to survive, avoid predators, store water and ride beasts, to an exodus of biblical proportions, with accompanying occasional need for upsettingly difficult moral decisions, at the same time, Cherryh didn’t really show us much that was new. Whilst her evocation of tension and the looming threat of disaster connected to the titular Hammerfall was extremely well delivered, threats can only loom for so long before they become simply background, and Cherryh came close to that boundary here; it was remarkable how inconsequential showers of meteors felt after we’d seen the first few.

Another reason I found the book’s second half problematic, is that consequences and explorations seemed to stop. I kept expecting a revelation about the Ila’s past or her motivations, or about the other faction’s true intentions, and we never received it despite several hints. Indeed, given how suspicious said other faction appear when we first meet them, it was quite an anti-climax when they just turned out to be telling the truth, albeit in a decidedly highhanded and unpleasant way. This faction also took several less than moral actions which never saw any payoff, in particular the use they made of an extremely lovable character (a use which felt like mental rape), was simply shrugged off, despite Marak’s protestations. What made this particularly nasty, is that said faction used the character in question specifically because they were vulnerable. On the one hand, I suppose this is an example of ends justifying means, and obviously Marak is not the only one with difficult decisions, on the other, the fact that there was no comeuppance, or even acknowledgement of what had been done felt extremely unsatisfying.

All that being said, the book had an oddly positive bent on occasions; impending Hammerfall notwithstanding. I applaud Cherryh for making Marak a leader who could take the hard moral decisions, but always retained his compassion, rather than dragging up that hoary old cliché about desperate times calling for leaders to become monsters. Similarly, I loved the fact that so much violence and unpleasantness is promised between tribes who are ancient enemies, and yet through a combination of Marak’s fast talking and the pure necessities of survival said tribes actually manage to come together at least semi peacefully.

Unfortunately, another reason that the second half moved slowly, is that just as in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, Cherryh’s saga style prose does feel a little too dour; almost humourless, indeed to say that on earth most cultures existing in harsh conditions tend to have a rich history of stories, poems and mythology, it’s almost an oversight to see none of this in an alien world, something which unfortunately did not help the pacing in the novel’s second half.

The climax when it comes is wonderfully epic. While the Hammerfall might be seen as less than expected given that most of its effects are hidden and the climax generally just involves people having to hunker down, work together and survive, since survival is the central question of the book, this was absolutely fitting. Cherryh unfortunately did rather miss however with both the Ila and with the final confrontation concerning Marrak’s father, since I never really felt enough connection to Marrak’s history to make the confrontation have enough punch, and with no twists or unexpected revelations either from the Ila, or from others, the ending did feel a little empty, though of course being as there is a second book in the Gene Wars duology (albeit one set a few hundred years later), it is possible we will uncover new truths about the world in the future.

Despite moving slowly at times and not quite delivering enough payoff or changes in the state of play, I’d still recommend Hammerfall. Seeing a generally nice guy having to make hard decisions in a harsh environment and exploring a very different world and culture with appealing characters was definitely a fascinating experience, and with where the first book finishes, the second promises to be a very different journey, though one hopefully just as much worth taking.

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