When an author has three new books come into print in the space of four months, the judicious reader may become suspicious about the quality of the author's work. Maybe the author is churning out hack work to pay off the IRS. Maybe the author is channeling L. Ron Hubbard. Surely something must be wrong. But perhaps not. Sometimes a highly skilled writer at the top of her craft can produce exceptional novels at an exceptional pace. That, I think, is what Barbara Hambly has done. In May, Dragonstar brought her high-fantasy Dragon series to a fine conclusion. In early August, Wet Grave added another eerie tale to her Benjamin January series of mysteries set in the post-Civil War South. Her most recent release, Sisters of the Raven, highlights her mastery of both genres at once.
The human story of Sisters of the Raven has all the gripping suspense of a mystery-thriller; it grabs the reader from the opening sentence and doesn't let go until the book is done. But even as the break-neck plot leaps from one crisis to the next, Hambly is building around it and through it a fantasy world of exceptional beauty and complexity. She writes with a professional's easy familiarity with the tools of genre fiction, and devotees of fantasy and mystery will find plenty of familiar landmarks. But a highly skilled writer at the top of her craft can use the conventions of genres without being used up by them, and this is certainly the case with Hambly. In her early novels, she used high fantasy conventions but pushed boundaries of characterization in her creation of female heroes, most successfully in Dragonsbane. In Sisters, she uses certain conventions of character, plot, and magical themes to draw readers into a world that, in the sum of its parts, seems not conventional but as real and difficult as our own.
Most of the action is set in the Yellow City, capital of the Realm of the Seven Lakes, an isolated, ancient kingdom surrounded by parched deserts and mountains. The kingdom thrives in this harsh environment from the water of the lakes and nearby springs, replenished by annual rains. The Realm of the Seven Lakes corresponds to no earthly kingdom -- this is not a historical fantasy, strictly speaking, but many of its features evoke our world. Some of the desert plants -- sagebrush, tumbleweed, ocotillo -- are endemic to North American deserts, and the environmental milieu -- a desert civilization thriving on scarce waters -- may suggest the Anasazi cultures of the American Southwest. The politics, magic, and culture, however, are clearly modeled on pre-Islamic Arabia: clans ruled by sheiks, nomads threatening cities, djinni, harems. As is often the case in fantasy stories, this novel's heroes are drawn from the lowest strata of society. The women, legally the property of the men, are its central figures, most especially the women who become the Sisters of the Raven. It is in Hambly's development of these women that her skillful play with convention most clearly appears.
The central figure in the story, Raeshaldis, a girl in her late teens, is a novice mage. That in itself is not unusual, for the Yellow City is steeped in magic. But she is one of the first female mages ever known, and the first who has been allowed to enter the school of the Sun Mages. At the school, she has had to face envy, hazing, and discrimination, and, from the first sentence of the novel, the murderous hatred of a powerful mage:
If the other novice wizards on the row hadn't broken into Raeshaldis's rooms the previous day, pissed on her bed and written WHORE and THIEF on the walls, she probably would have been killed on the night of the full moon. . . . But yesterday's memory made her wary.
Raeshaldis is clearly based on an important character type in recent fantasy and science fiction -- the pioneering girl/woman who is the first to enter a male bastion of power and learning. She resembles in many ways Irian in Ursula Le Guin's most recent Earthsea books, or Menolly in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger. Hambly does not follow this model too closely, however. Although Shaldis's acceptance in the Citadel of the Sun Mages is important, her most important deeds take place outside its confines, without any mentors. She is a character who will speak strongly, I expect to teen and college-age readers.
Thirty-something that I am, my favorite characters are the more enigmatic and erratic Pomegranate Woman and her (possibly imaginary) familiar Pontifer the pig. As with Shaldis, one recognizes the type -- the wizard/hermit who seems a bit crazy, but who is closer to the wisdom and power of the earth than the academic wizarding sorts -- but Hambly renders the details of Pomegranate Woman's manner in a way that is rich, unpredictable, and thoroughly delightful. Anyone who has a voice that is "gentle, a hoarse, husky alto like very gritty brown bread," is OK with me!
The plight of these two female mages -- both alone in their different ways, both hunted by a mage who pursues them through the waking world and their dreams -- is set in the context of a complex and desperate plot of political intrigue. King Oryn and his favored lady, The Summer Concubine (the other two central characters) are trying to find a way to save their Kingdom, which is under assault not by a human enemy but by a much more implacable foe: drought. As the situation grows more desperate, Oryn seeks to guide his people into building a 200-mile long aqueduct, an engineering project of unprecedented scope, as a way of giving the city a water supply that is not dependent upon the yearly rains.
The threatened realm, the embattled king, and even the drought are typical fantasy tropes (Guy Gavriel Kay uses drought, and the sacrifice necessary to end it, to powerful effect in The Summer Tree), making the struggles (and characters) of Oryn and The Summer Concubine familiarly appealing.
Hambly takes these high-fantasy symbols for the health of a land and measures their power on a human scale: the sand-filled abandoned villas and their withered gardens, the iron grip of the crime-lords who control access to water in poor neighborhoods, the machinations of the nobility trying to turn the crisis into political advantage, the calculated play of religious demagogues upon the fears of the people. For all the elemental power of the drought, Hambly gives us a story in which the social pressures created by the drought seem likely to destroy the city long before it would shrivel away from simple lack of water.
The link between the personal and political stories is -- as it should be in a fantasy -- magic. The Yellow City is threatened by drought because the Sun Mages, who have called the rains for seven centuries and more, are losing their magic, as are the Earth Mages, the Blood Mages, and the Pyromancers. In a culture as profoundly dependent upon magic as our own is upon technology, the loss of this power is as terrible a crisis as the drought itself. The magic that heals, that keeps the semi-human Teyn slaves docile and hard-working, that links the kingdom to other communities far away in this world, and that brings the rains every year is vanishing, day by day. Or so it seems to the mages who have built their lives around it. Yet the magic may not be disappearing, but changing. At just this juncture in this utterly patriarchal society, magic is coming, as it has never come before, to women: to Raeshaldis, to Pomegranate Woman, to the Summer Concubine, to the Sisters of the Raven. Their magic is elegantly rendered by Hambly. Both esoteric and deeply sensual, related to the ancient traditions of the mages but distinct from them, it blurs the boundaries between waking life, dream, and memory. The Sisters' growing powers may hold out hope for the future of the kingdom, but they are resented, if not hated, by the men who are losing their power, and many blame that loss on the women. And so the entrenched social hierarchy works against the cultivation of powers that might save the society, and the women who are discovering their powers find their lives threatened by enemies who may not have enough power left to save the city but may have enough to destroy the women they hate, if they are alone. As Pomegranate Woman says:
"It seeks those of us whom none will help; seeks us in the places where none will come when we call.". . .
"What does it want?"
Very softly, as though fearing that the thing that hunted in darkness would hear, Pomegranate Woman said, "It wants our blood and our hearts, child, devoured within our living bodies. It wants our power, to feed its own. It wants our lives."
Like the threatened kingdom and the embattled king, the theme of magic passing away is a staple of fantasy. Hambly's handling of it, especially in her representation of the bereft and embittered mages, who medicate their loss with drugs, hatred, and charlatanry, draws on Ursula Le Guin's handling of the passing away of magic in The Farthest Shore. But, as Pomegranate Woman's account of the danger makes clear, the way Hambly personalizes the consequences of this loss is quite different, and much darker, than Le Guin's vision. Sisters of the Raven is not dark fantasy: its world is made up primarily of horror and evil. There are many moments of happiness, compassion, and humor. But horror and evil are very much present in its world, and Hambly represents them in sometimes graphic, terrifying ways. For much of the novel, as befits a mystery, the villains do not appear directly, and their identity is totally unknown. But as they do come into view, they are loathsome indeed, as is their handiwork.
By artfully combining and personalizing the usual building blocks of fantasy -- the pioneer girl, the eccentric hermit, the embattled king, the elegant and cultured lady of intrigue, the dried and dying kingdom, the passing away of magic -- Hambly crafts a riveting adventure that deals with human problems of great intellectual complexity and emotional depth. I won't explain exactly how all these parts fit together; Hambly's timing in the development of her plot should be experienced without forewarning. But I will say that I think this is a book that many readers will want to read twice. I know I did. First, the nonstop rush to find out what happens next, then the slower read to think through the implications and savor the precision of Hambly's economical, vivid descriptions.
Some readers may not want to bother with intellectual complexity, and Hambly for the most part will not force them to. Nevertheless, whatever the writing schedule that has led to her recent spate of publications, she has produced a novel that seems unusually timely for fantasy (though perhaps it is a property of the best fantasy to always seem timely). In a year in which three fourths of the population of the United States has experienced drought, in which an understanding of Arab culture is increasingly pressing (an understanding that requires thinking about the control of natural resources, the nature of political authority, and gender relations) this novel gives readers who want to understand the complex workings of alternate worlds, and our own, a lot to chew on. If you'd like to know more about the political and cultural history of the Arab world, A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani is a great starting point.
The one topic on which Hambly forces the reader's attention is gender relations. This is a strongly feminist novel, and some may feel that its portrayal of misogyny is too heavy-handed. Would that it were so, but I believe it is all too close to the reality of some women's lives: indeed, women are treated less brutally in the novel than they were under the rule of the Taliban, for example. Hambly is certainly even-handed in presenting well-rounded characters of both genders. She does not demonize entire groups as some lesser writers do, though individual male characters are utterly, but convincingly, despicable.
The story of Sisters of the Raven is complete unto itself, and I am not aware of plans for a sequel. But Hambly leaves clear openings for future novels, and I for one would be happy to visit this world again, to see how this culture continues to adapt to the momentous changes she has envisioned for it.
Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons.
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