Cherryh is justifiably praised for her unique alien cultures, her complex political and social settings and plots, her sense of fast paced action and psychological insights. But it seems that she reserves all these good qualities for her science fiction novels, and is almost a different writer when it comes to fantasy.
Fortress spends it first 200 pages on just two characters, the wizard Mauryl and his Shaping Tristen. Mauryl is one of the world's oldest creatures, and reputably one of the strongest, part of both the first and second great ages of this world. But when the book opens we are in the third age, and Mauryl is old, his powers not quite what they were. His Shaping of Tristen is his last great act of wizardry, and it does not go totally according to plan, for when Tristen appears, he knows nothing of his abilities or purpose or even the essentials of what it is to be human, and must be painstakingly taught by Mauryl. And here we see one of the main failings of this book - Mauryl could obviously be a very deep and intriguing character, but we are given almost no details about his earlier life, about what type of person he is, about why he felt that summoning his Shaping was necessary. Instead we view almost everything through the eyes of Tristen, at this point very much an innocent, who can only see the obvious. And Mauryl's enemy is very nebulous, manifesting as a wind, a shaking, with no background of what he is, what his capabilities are, or even why he is Mauryl's enemy. All of this would be perfectly acceptable for a 15 page introduction to the main story, but here it is stretched out over a very slow moving, apparently pointless 200.
After this point, when Tristen is forced to go on the road to discover his purpose, and we start the see the whole imagined world, the novel gets much better. Here we find Cefwyn, heir to the throne, dealing with the constant political intrigues of feudal society, a scenario that allows Cherryh to stretch her legs and begin to show the writing she is capable of, mixing multiple very distinct characters and event lines with a complexity she handles very nicely. As the world is painted in, we also begin to find out its history and the faint beginnings of who Mauryl's enemy is, and a little insight into just what Tristen is. When Cherryh gets to describe the problems and logistics of putting a feudal army into the field, every detail rings true, and the reader gets a real sense of actually being part of this world. But we also find the second major problem with this book, and that is Tristen himself. As we proceed through the story, Tristen finds that he has abilities and talents that manifest at need - such as when required to ride a horse, he immediately shows the talents of a master horseman. This is a very dangerous deus-ex-machina plot device, as Cherryh can basically state at any point that Tristen now suddenly has such-and-such ability to be able to deal with whatever the current problem is. And it is this rabbit-out-of-the-hat feeling that mars the denouement of this book, making it far less exciting than it could have been.
A well constructed world that shows intimations of being very intriguing, some very good characters, especially Cefwyn, but little sense of high fantasy, poor pacing, and an ending that left this reader with a letdown feeling.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)