Gate of Ivrel by C. J. Cherryh was recommended to me by a friend who knows I actively seek out stories with strong heroines who wield a sword. This novel definitely qualifies!
First, the good. The story drew me in right away. I was intrigued by the sci-fi aspect of the gates, and the idea of a dedicated team of people who sacrifice their lives to see the portals destroyed. I liked the idea of a medieval style world embroiled in the chaos and war that these gates caused. I enjoyed how, just like in Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and many other similar epics, we have a variety of cultures each with their own motivations and intersests. We have the few-structures-nature-living group. We have the high-honor-castle-living group. We have other groups with unique personalities. That's always enjoyable in a story.
The heroine, Morgaine, is certainly strong and wise. She's able to protect herself. She also has flaws, which is good to keep a story real. I admit I wish she wasn't the romance-novel-cliche of being so drop dead beautiful that every man who sees her has to have her. The hero, Vanye, also is a bit cliche with his perfect fighting and perfect muscles.
The book does well with plot, catching you up in all the layers of what is going on and wondering what is going to happen next. I stayed up all night in order to finish it and see how it ended.
Now, that all being said, there were some issues.
First, the book sets itself up to be a long, multi-book epic. It's clear in how it's worded and how it ends. This is fine in theory, but instead of rolling out the characters and history in a way readers can absorb, it's dumped in a massive pile that one would need to map out a family tree and relationship map to be able to keep track of in the prologue. That leaves the reader with the task of spending a while memorizing all the names in case some are important soon, or just ignoring the whole lot as "non-important filler" and moving on with the story. I hate to read-and-ignore content. To me, if an author presents something, it's because it's important. So working those details smoothly and gradually into the story is key for me.
Next, there are some fascinating cultures in here, but we get only bare descriptions of them. We get a skim of what they're like, without the beautiful underlying foundations that we see for example in Lord of the Rings. The same with characters. We get the "mad king". And then there's the "malicious king". For all that we have a great heroine, she's it for women. Somehow the rest of the world only has females who are prostitutes. Or obnoxious little girls.
Lots of little mistakes were made that editors should have caught. The use of "thee" and related language is wrong which is continually jarring. From Shakespeare, it should be: "Seest thou this letter? Take it up, I pray thee." An example from the Bible: "Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast fashioned me as clay; And wilt thou bring me into dust again?"
The progression also makes it hard to visualize what is going on at times. We're barely told that the hero, Vanye, has had a manhood ceremony in the past - but that's about it. Does that mean he's 13? 15? The only real clue we ever seem to get is the cover, and that is so outrageously off on the heroine's outfit (putting her only in a bikini as a trained warrior) that it's hard to imagine it's very accurate.
Finally, for a book all about a sword-fighting woman and her sword-fighting man, there's very little detail about the sword-fighting in here! It seems more a convenient skill to get them out of scrapes than a real aspect of their characters that's covered in the book. We hear more about how he cuts his hair.
Still, I did like the interweaving of their codes of honor, and their challenges of loyalty. I love stories that cover those things. I enjoy strong female characters, and we certainly have one here. However, usually there is a male character worthy to be at her side. Here, he seems more like a fifteen year old boy. Yes, he was raised in a certain culture, and I wholeheartedly understand that. But even there, the way he acts seem to lack a level of wisdom / maturity in some scenes. Men in medieval times had to grow up quickly - and especially men in the position Vanye was in. He seems a bit too naive to be believable.
Still, clearly the story did suck me in, and I cared about the characters. I wish an editor had done a more thorough pass at the book to clean up some of its issue and encourage the author to provide more layers in some areas. It's as if they didn't trust the readers to be able to handle the larger level of detail, but absolutely we can. One only has to look at the great success of other similar novels to see that.