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Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Dragonsbane - Barbara Hambly

Hey, this is really good! It doesn’t beat out The Ladies of Mandrigyn as my favorite Hambly, but that’s because Mandrigyn is awesome; this is a strong second. Please ignore the cover and blurb, though, as they appear designed to fool you into thinking this is a different sort of book from what it actually is. You’d never guess that Jenny is the main character, for instance. I’m not sure why the deception, as this will be immediately obvious to anyone who opens the book.

Jenny and John are not your typical fantasy couple. She’s 37, he’s a couple years younger, and they have two young sons. John is a minor lord and renowned dragon slayer, but we first meet him knee-deep in pig muck and the dragon slaying wasn’t romantic either. Jenny is a witch, and lives apart from her family to better practice magic, but the time she’s devoted to family and community has still hindered her development of her talents. Yep, it’s family vs. career, but unusually, Jenny is far more bothered by the magical potential she’s sacrificed for love and family than the other way round.

The plot is fairly straightforward: a starry-eyed young messenger, Gareth, begs John to come kill a dragon, and the trio sets out to do so, though the ugly political situation will turn out more dangerous than the dragon itself. It is a fun plot, satisfyingly wrapped up at the end of the novel (there are sequels, but they were written many years later and apparently aren’t up to snuff). There is a bit of journeying, but it doesn’t go on too long, and if the action scenes sometimes seemed a bit drawn-out to me, I say that as someone who isn’t looking for action-based fantasy anymore.

What I do look for in fantasy are great characters, and this book has them. It is a very small cast, with only a few secondary characters in addition to Jenny, John and Gareth, but the principals are interesting, textured, and well-developed, such that it’s easy to believe these are real people. Often in fantasy novels heroics inspire no more than a shrug from me; the standard fantasy hero is courageous in such a knee-jerk, pre-programmed way that it’s hard to be moved once you’re over age 16 or so. But such is not the case in Dragonsbane: this is a mature fantasy novel (in the best sense of the word, not the “full of gore and sex” sense), with mature heroes who are heroic in a real and believable way.

Speaking of heroics, this is one of those fantasy novels that takes pains to distinguish the myth from the reality; Gareth, a lover of dragon-slaying ballads, is perhaps intended as a stand-in for the typical fantasy reader, whose illusions are shattered as the story progresses. Today, with the market swamped with “gritty” fantasy, this is nothing new, and Hambly’s use of realism for shock value may seem a bit dated. Presumably when it was published in 1985, the practicality and realism actually was subversive. But it doesn’t go over-the-top in grittiness either; the reality is more prosaic and more complex than Gareth expects, but heroism still exists. And some of the subtle commentary on fictionalization is just as relevant today. For instance, in the ballad, John rescued “maidens” from the dragon. In reality, it was a boy and a girl (though really just a boy, because the girl was already dead). This is exactly what we do in real life! I remember being shocked – shocked! – to learn that 2/3 of murder victims in the U.S. are male; in fiction it’s skewed at least as heavily the other way, because Victims Are Female.

As for the writing, in general it’s better than most fantasy, though Hambly’s sentences still sometimes trip me up. It is nicely visual, with good imagery. The point-of-view is a bit odd, though. We spend the book in Jenny’s head, but in the first couple of chapters, many of the observations are Gareth’s: the village is squalid, John is a yokel, the boys are urchins. This weirdness fades after the beginning, but there’s still the occasional description requiring familiarity with a place that Jenny doesn’t know. This too may be a result of changes in the genre; authors today stick tightly to their POV character’s head, making deviations jarring.

Overall, I really liked this book – fantasy that can be enjoyed by thinking adults, with strong, believable characters and an intriguing take on dragons. Definitely recommended.