It usually takes me a while to get into a book, or even consider reading it. Even if the writer is familiar, and one I like a lot, there is no guarantee that even familiarity with the writer will get me to read the book. Fortress in the Eye of Time turned up when I was going through one of my “no high fantasy” phases, so I ignored it,when it came out. (I also ignored Hammerfall by the same author, which I also ended up loving, even though Hammerfall was a Big Rock Falls Everyone Dies kind of book.) But I finally got around to reading it–and it pulled me right in.
We start with a wizard named Mauryl Gestaurian. He is living in a crumbling tower,and due to various promises he has made and the presence of an undead enemy named Hasufin, he decides to create a Shaping that will solve both of his problems. However, something goes wrong with his summoning, and instead of a great warrior-wizard, he gets a terrifyingly innocent and naïve young man Mauryl calls Tristen.
Despite Tristen at first being a completely blank slate, he quickly learns about the world around him, with Mauryl’s somewhat impatient help. He is still however very childlike and innocent. When Mauryl’s enemy succeeds in defeating him,Tristen is left alone, and wanders to the Zeide, the capitol of the Amefel,where Cefwyn, the Crown Prince of Ylesuin is attempting to navigate the dangerous waters of a restless and rebellious province.
Cefwyn becomes interested in Tristen, and befriends him despite the misgivings of Idrys,the commander of his guard. As their friendship develops, Hasufin follows, attempting to gain an entrance into the physical world through Cefwyn’s enemies.
The best parts of this book are the character interactions and relationships.(Which is the case in most of Cherryh’s works; she has a gift for creating complex relationships among characters, and describing them as they play out.) Wehave Emuin, Cefwyn’s former tutor and adviser–a wizard turned priest (turned wizard again) who feels guilt for his part in the fall of a kingdom, and who becomes a somewhat unwilling mentor and adviser to Tristen. We have Cefwyn,whose reckless, thoughtless behavior is transformed into thoughtful (if still reckless) action over the course of the story. We have Idrys, who is suspicious of everything and everyone who slowly becomes more accustomed to Tristen, who is an extremely unknown quantity. There is also Uwen, a sensible soldier who is assigned (along with a few other soldiers) to help and protect Tristen. (Uwen is one of my absolute favorite characters.) Even the minor characters have well developed motivations and interactions.
This is not a book with a lot of lightning bolts being thrown around, or grand quests. This is a “realistic” high fantasy world, rather than a “fantastical”one; destiny goes awry, and fate is extremely variable. It is a high fantasy where wizards approach magic as a shove in the right place at the right time and wards and protections are created by making sure the right doors are locked,the windows are closed, and all the Lines are properly laid down. It is a “king who returns,” fantasy where the king never actually gets to the point where he’s king. A big point of the series is that Tristen decides not to be the person that Mauryl had originally attempted to Summon, and how that changes his circumstances.