I loved The Ladies of Mandrigyn, so came to this book with some trepidation, knowing that the only recurring characters would be Sun Wolf and Starhawk. As it turns out, while Mandrigyn is epic fantasy, The Witches of Wenshar is a murder mystery in a fantasy setting; not being a mystery fan, I felt it less enjoyable, but also found this one a less accomplished novel than its predecessor.
This book begins nine months after the end of Mandrigyn, with Sun Wolf on a quest to find a magic teacher.* He and Starhawk arrive in a small desert kingdom, where they meet a woman who claims to teach magic. But they soon become embroiled in a mystery, as people keep turning up dead by some apparently supernatural means.
On a theoretical level, I admire Hambly’s choice to write a sequel that’s a radically different sort of story: life moves on, and realistically our heroes wouldn’t encounter villains trying to conquer the world everywhere they go. And as someone who doesn’t read mysteries (they creep me out, like horror films), I do think this is a good one: while I had my suspicions early on, it's a good story, with some interesting red herrings and twists along the way, as well as a solution that seems much more obvious in retrospect than at the time.
But aside from the fact that I’m less interested in this kind of story, much of what I liked about Mandrigyn was missing here. The secondary characters have less depth and emotional range, and the narrative sympathy is parceled out in more conventional ways: in Mandrigyn, Hambly encouraged readers to like virtually all the secondary characters, even the prickly ones who caused trouble for our heroes. In Wenshar, the love is reserved for the young prince and princess, while characters with more potential wind up with little sympathy or growth, and are ultimately dismissed as unpleasant or pathetic. The end of this book also seemed too tidy. Basically, everyone who contributed to the murders is killed off or runs away, without our heroes ever getting their hands dirty. One of the great strengths of the end of Mandrigyn was that Hambly didn’t go for the easy drama of killing people off (though okay, I loved those characters so I’m glad she didn’t!); instead, everybody has to continue to deal with each other: the newly liberated women and the traditionalists, the rebels and the captives and the collaborators. Here, virtually the entire secondary cast except the prince and princess is either murdered or self-disposing, so nobody has a serious think coming; nobody’s left to cause trouble.
Less investment in the story also meant I noticed the faults in the writing more: Hambly does have a tendency to unnecessarily spell things out, and her style is rather less than polished. Too often the sentences, while grammatically correct, trip me up and force me to re-read just to figure out what they’re saying.
It’s not all bad, though. The leads are still enjoyable, and I liked their relationship: Sun Wolf and Starhawk are together now, but they aren’t angsty or obsessive about it; they act like the mature adults that they are. Nor has being with a man turned Starhawk weepy or fretful. One of the things I’ve always liked about Starhawk is that, although she’s a warrior woman, she’s never self-righteous or superior about her lack of femininity, and her non-traditional choices don’t prevent her from liking and befriending other women. That continues to be the case here, though I would have liked to see more of her friendship with Kaletha. Starhawk's level of comfort with herself and her choices is unusual in fiction, and refreshing. I also liked the setting, which steps away from the pseudo-European fantasy mold and includes an interesting clash of cultures.
All in all, this isn’t a new favorite like The Ladies of Mandrigyn, but it’s good enough for what it is. If you’re a fan of both fantasy and mysteries, it’s worth a shot.
* It’s not entirely clear to me why he needs one, as between chosen-ness and the anzid plus one cram session in the last book, Sun Wolf is always capable of whatever magic the situation calls for. But anywho.