Click here to read reviewer Sharon Schulz-Elsing's take on Hammerfall.
C.J. Cherryh starts a new galaxy-spanning series in the middle of a desert, following a trail of mad pedestrians who wouldnít recognize a spaceship if it kidnapped them. A plague of voices and strange visions has fallen on the people of the desert tribes, and the servants of their supreme ruler, the Ila, try to quarantine those afflicted before it can spread.
Among the mad is Marak Trin Tain. Holding onto his dignity through the confusion of the voices in his head, he struggles to maintain some of identity long enough for the guards herding him and his fellow madmen to take them to the Ila. Carrying a wish from his life before the madness, he plans to strike against her, and possibly change his worldís history before he meets the ominously unknown fate of all those afflicted by the visions. But when he meets the Ila, he learns of a possible purpose to his madness, a call coming from far across the desert. On his journey to answer that call, he finds an answer to his madness he never would have expected, and a greater threat than even the Ila expects: the Hammerfall, an attack that can shatter a world. Against this threat, Marak has himself, an army of other visionaries, his equally afflicted wives Hati and Norit, and the always questionable aid of the Ila.
Neither Marak, his two wives, or the powerful Ila are given the depth of characterization that might usually be expected for lead characters in a C.J. Cherryh book. That honor here goes to the desert of Hammerfall, a living, shifting place of freezing nights and blistering days. Alien forces threaten Marakís world in the abstract for much of the book and provide an unusual urgency to his repeated journeys across the hostile terrain. But the desert itself is the real and immediate enemy. When a truly world-threatening event looms, the desert still wraps the characters in daily, immediate peril that keep their minds focused on the present, making the view of other challenges almost claustrophobic. The desert moves and attacks, sucks energy from the people who flee across its surface and offers slim shelter from the ultimately alien attack that threatens all the lives struggling across it. Itís a brilliant, ambiguous, well-realized force without ever having a hint of human characterization.
The Ila and her fellow superhumans are almost as alien. They plot and scheme on a scale of centuries, talk to regular humans with aggravated impatience for lives too short to understand the grandeur of their goals, and seem to regard the planetís ultimate doom with no more human feeling than a sort of offended pride at not having the time to do their job properly.
With all these superhuman forces to contend with, Marak and his small troop of resettlers soon feel very small and human indeed. Itís a great technique on Cherryhís part, as it strips all sense of invulnerability from her heroes. By the time the Hammerfall is imminent, itís easy to believe that all the people the reader has met, with the possible exception of the infuriating Ila, may be killed, and leave the rest of the story to the Ila and the desert. The idea that the wishes of these small creatures might make any difference in the life of a planet is almost absurd; but Marak and Hatiís confidence that they can wind somehow balances the tension, and makes Hammerfall a white-knuckle race to the last page.