This is excellent fun, a traditional portal fantasy of the sort I hadn’t read in years. As far as Hambly’s books go, I didn’t love it to pieces like The Ladies of Mandrigyn, it doesn’t turn tropes on their heads like Dragonsbane, and I doubt the characters will prove as memorable to me as in either of those books, but it’s an exciting adventure nonetheless.
The book has a bit of a slow start, as we meet two 20-somethings – Gil, a grad student, and Rudy, a motorcycle painter – living in southern California. But within a couple of chapters, they are transported to the medieval world of Darwath, which is under assault by amorphous beings known as “the Dark.” This is a short book, the start of a short trilogy, and Hambly successfully cuts to the chase: the Dark is not supposed to be a complex or comprehensible villain, but rather, to tap directly into primordial fears of the dark and the things that might be moving in it. It’s all about atmosphere, and as the characters struggle to survive and fend off unknown attackers, the atmosphere is excellent.
The characters themselves are familiar archetypes, though they get some respectable development that doesn’t always follow the stereotypes. Of the two protagonists, she becomes a warrior on Darwath (not your typical character arc for a female nerd), while he becomes a mage; he has a romance, while she doesn’t yet. And their adventures are certainly gripping, though to me the book loses some emotional resonance in following primarily Gil in the beginning, but primarily Rudy toward the end; as the stakes ramp up, we’re spending more time with the character we know less well. The plot, while exciting, also doesn’t bear much critical scrutiny. (Why doesn’t Ingold simply deposit Tir at the Keep on his way back from Earth, then go to Karst for everyone else?)
That said, this was a satisfying read, and although the story is far from over, there’s still a solid conclusion here: let that be a lesson to authors of series whose intermediate endings are determined more by page count than story flow. I would continue this series next time I’m looking for fun escapism.