I’ll begin by saying that I loved this book. Fiercely. To the point I wasn’t ready to let go when it came due at the library, so I ordered my own copy. Does that mean it’s without flaws? No, which is why I’m giving 4 stars. But it’s one of those books that reminded me why I still read fantasy, even though I’ve become a much more analytical reader than I was when I fell in love with the genre as a kid. Because the rare books that engage my emotions this way, that have me passionately invested not only in the characters’ fates but in their every interaction, are almost always fantasy.
So here is the setup: the city of Mandrigyn has been conquered by a power-hungry wizard, and all the men who marched out to fight him were either killed or taken captive to work in the mines. The women, led by the charismatic Sheera, have formed a resistance movement, and blackmail mercenary captain Sun Wolf into training them to fight. Meanwhile, his lieutenant, Starhawk, sets out on a quest to rescue him. At first glance it’s very much a genre fantasy novel (just look at those names), without literary pretensions, but while there’s plenty of adventure and fighting, the plot turned out to be a thoughtful one, surprisingly free of cliché, even though it was published in 1984.
What I loved most about this book are the characters. Hambly makes liberal use of stock character roles, but don't be fooled: within them are real, three-dimensional people. The book turns the typical fantasy setup on its head: instead of a lone heroine surrounded by men, we get a hero (Sun Wolf) surrounded by women. As a woman, I love to read about women doing things, and was a little surprised at just how much fun this setup was. For once, someone was telling me the kind of story I want to read! And while Sun Wolf and the few other male characters are believable and entertaining (I especially loved Sun Wolf's snarking about his drunken barbarian ancestors), it's with the women that Hambly really shines. Her female characters are a diverse group, in personalities and lifestyle choices and everything else, yet even the most difficult ones are rendered with sympathy and without quick or easy judgments. Hambly takes types of characters who in any other book would be vilified, or who would be dismissed as shallow and uninteresting, and not only turns them into well-developed and sympathetic characters, but gives them hopeful endings where any other author would have killed them off.
The book is also surprisingly thoughtful in other ways. For instance, Starhawk's quest might at first seem like a sideshow--after all, we know where Sun Wolf is--but her journey turns out to be the moral center of the book. Hambly could have gotten away with idealizing the mercenaries (making them disciplined professionals who would never harm a non-combatant), but instead she draws a less flattering picture, and forces Starhawk to re-evaluate her worldview as she comes into close contact with civilians. And then there's the society of Mandrigyn itself, which historically adhered to strict gender roles but is thrown into upheaval during the story. The consequences of abrupt change are dealt with, and it isn't always pretty. Which leads to a perfect bittersweet ending: not bittersweet in the easy way of most fantasy novels (where the protagonists get everything they're fighting for, losing a friend or two along the way), but in a way that's realistic and earned and leaves the characters with plenty of challenges ahead.
All this is not to say the book is perfect, because it isn't. There are some plot elements I wasn't thrilled with: Sun Wolf and Starhawk are often slow to draw obvious conclusions (though perhaps as mercenaries they weren't intended to be the brightest bulbs on the tree), and Sun Wolf has a bit of better-at-everything-than-everyone syndrome. The worldbuilding is mixed. Hambly does an excellent job with visual and sensory description, as well as with the macro changes in the society. But the details don't always quite coalesce. For instance, the requirement that women in pre-conquest Mandrigyn wear veils in public is often referred to as a touchstone for the degree of repression that existed, but contrasts with much of what we see: there are female gladiators; even people who are ashamed of their looks fail to take advantage of the custom; and the rebels show up for battle training in not much more than bikinis. Sure, they're self-conscious at first, but in a society with such high expectations of modesty I'd have expected them to devise far less revealing workout clothes, especially since this training happens in winter. None of these inconsistencies threw me out of the story, but they seem odd in retrospect. Finally, as for the writing, it was good enough to keep me in the story, but it is genre fantasy, so expect unnecessary adverbs and unusually expressive eyes and so on.
But I hope you won't take my quibbles too much to heart, because in the end this was a fantastically fun book that I loved to pieces. It's a story about excellently-drawn, lovable characters who grow and change and have exciting adventures, and really, what could be better than that?