You know what we don’t see often enough in fantasy novels? Middle-aged heroes. That’s what I loved most about Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, the first book in her Winterlands quartet. John, Thane of the Winterlands, is renowned as a “Dragonsbane” because he successfully killed a dragon in his youth with the help of his lover Jenny, a magic user of limited power. Now Jenny and John are older and have children and are settled into a comfortable-ish middle age, but suddenly a young man comes riding up from the much richer lands to the South, begging for their aid with a black dragon.
Dragonsbane delighted me on a number of levels. Jenny is one of the most complex fantasy heroines I can name. Her magical mentor told her over and over that magic requires absolute dedication, and while she loves John and her children, she also struggles with the suspicion that she could have been far more powerful if not for these family ties. John is a scholar and a tinkerer, a brave but kindly man obsessed with lore and machines. You can absolutely see why Jenny fell in love with him despite her mentor’s harsh warnings.
Hambly’s world was a fairly standard medieval-Europe-inspired fantasy setting, but unlike many other authors she neither romanticizes nor exaggerates the difficulties of living in a pre-industrial society. When I finished Dragonsbane I immediately checked out its sequel, Dragonshadow, to continue Jenny and John’s story.
And … hoo boy.
Dragonshadow is a good book; let me make that clear. It is well-written, nicely paced, and expands the world of the Winterlands without re-writing any of the worldbuilding done in Dragonsbane.* It is also the darkest book I’ve read in recent memory that wasn’t about the Holocaust. It was clear in Dragonsbane that Jenny and John live in a brutal word–brutal because of its harsh weather conditions, brutal because of its politics and its poverty–but Dragonshadow adds a new level of brutality when vicious, sadistic demons attempt to escape into their reality.
If you want to remain absolutely unspoiled for the series, I suggest stopping here; otherwise, minor spoilers for the later books follow.
John and Jenny come through the events of Dragonsbane at terrible personal cost. Without revealing what happens, I will say that I found it hard to read at times. I liked these two characters and didn’t want to see them suffer. It’s a credit to Hambly that I finished Dragonsbane and absolutely had to get my hands on the next book in the series. The optimist in me hoped that the next book would start with a “it’s five months later and everything’s much better now!” scene, but Knight of the Demon Queen makes it clear that the events of Dragonshadow will be with Jenny and John for a long time. Only in the final book, Dragonstar, do things once again begin to look hopeful for our heroes.
This series challenged me as a reader in a way few other books have. Hambly doesn’t sugar-coat what’s happened to the characters, but you also never get the sense that she’s reveling in the suffering of her protagonists, or asking the reader to revel in it. Furthermore, the darkest parts of the book don’t come from violence or torture–they come from despair, from fights within families, from the loss of loved ones. I usually put down books that I find too dark; these kept me reading. I also loved the twist Hambly put on her story in the third book, when John is compelled to travel through demon dimensions and–to his surprise–ends up in another mortal world, a sci-fi dystopia where magic doesn’t seem to exist. This clash of genres could have been a mess but I thought Hambly pulled it off with aplomb.
Should you read this quartet? Yes, probably, if you like complex and sophisticated fantasy. But prepare to be challenged and disturbed.
Rating: Buy It
* I hate it when fantasy writers change the rules on us readers. David Eddings, I’m looking at you.