Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Peering at the blurry bookshelves behind me in a photo taken after I came back from Conspiracy 87 (my one and only Worldcon), I was reminded of a book I bought at the time (largely because of its Michael Whelan cover), and never got round to finishing. So, I thought I’d seek it out secondhand and give it another go.

Dragonsbane (1986) was issued in the UK by Tolkien’s publishers Unwin, via their Unicorn fantasy imprint. Unicorn was around from 1982 to 1988, reprinting some of the genre’s classics (Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell), and publishing originals from established and new writers, including Louise Cooper, M John Harrison, Colin Greenland and Geoff Ryman. Unusually, it seems to have been strictly fantasy, with no SF or horror, which perhaps says something about fantasy’s popularity in the mid 80s, or at least Unwin’s faith in it.

cover art by Michael Whelan

The novel starts with Gareth of Magloshaldon journeying to the northern Winterlands, to summon Lord John Aversin to the King’s court in the south. John is the only living man to bear the title Dragonsbane, for having killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr, albeit many years ago. Now another dragon is wreaking havoc in the south, and every knight the King has sent to deal with it has been killed. But Gareth, an unworldly young man and a scholar of the heavily-romanticised ballads of dragon-slayings past, is appalled to find this Dragonsbane knee-deep in mud, discussing the care of pigs with a commoner. He’s even more appalled to learn that John didn’t walk boldly up to the dragon and lop off its head, but first stuck it with as many poisoned javelins as he could, to even the odds. But John agrees to come south, not because he relishes facing another dragon, but in the hope he can remind the King of his northern subjects, who need their liege’s help seeing off the increasingly damaging waves of seasonal sea-raiders.

Another thing that appals Gareth is the presence of Jenny Waynest, a witch and the mother of John’s children. These children are cared for by John’s aunt, because, in this world, being a witch, wizard, or sorcerer means living a life dedicated to working with, furthering, and understanding one’s magical power. “To be a mage you must be a mage,” Jenny was told by her old teacher, Caerdinn. “Magic is the only key to magic.” There’s no room for human relations and family. Jenny loves her children, and though she visits them, and John, when she can, she knows she can’t give herself to them fully whilst serving the thing that, like it or not, is most precious to her — her own magical abilities.

art by Walter Velez, from isfdb.org

Gareth’s reaction to her, though, is evidently based on more than social disapproval. And as Jenny accompanies the two men south (she played a key, though unsung, role in the slaying of the dragon, so John’s going to need her), she learns of Zyerne, the King’s beautiful young mistress — a mistress who, like Jenny, is also a witch. But, it turns out, she’s a witch of immense power. She can, it seems, shape-change casually, for her own and others’ amusement, even though shape-changing is something that ought to take a lot out of even the most powerful sorcerer or sorceress. As she heads to the court of the King in the south, Jenny prepares to meet with someone who is all that she isn’t, and seemingly never can be — young, beautiful, and immensely powerful.

And, it turns out, there’s more than just a dragon to deal with in the south. Not only is there Zyerne’s manipulation of the King and his courtiers, but the King’s cousin, after an apparent throne-grab, is now holed up in the besieged city of Halnath; meanwhile, the wealthy gnomes, ousted from their home in the Deep of Ylferdun (where the dragon has made its lair), are subject to racist attacks in a land where the gap between the common folk and their indifferent, wealthy rulers is widening daily. Insert your own modern-day parallels here.

With its early emphasis on the difference between Gareth’s romantic expectations and the messy, muddy reality, Dragonsbane is one of those books that seeks to bring a bit of realism to the genre. (And I’d say fantasy needs constant balancing on both sides, with doses of gritty realism, but also of wondrous magic, and this book has some of the latter, too.) This air of realism, and the fact the book starts with a retired hero from the wintery north being summoned to the decadent court of the king in the south, reminded me somewhat of Game of Thrones.

Also like Game of Thrones, Dragonsbane is about power. Though Jenny manages to stave off jealousy of Zyerne (largely because she realises what a dark-souled creature Zyerne is beneath all her beauty, youth, and magical ability), she finds herself facing a different sort of temptation, when her own magical powers receive an unexpected boost. Suddenly, Jenny must make the decision between becoming what her newly-grown power would make her into, or of deliberately turning her back on her teacher’s maxims, and not dedicating her life only to studying her own magical ability. “All power must be paid for,” is another rule in this world, and if you don’t pay with hard work and dedication, the price will, it seems, be extracted from your soul, and all that makes you human.

I was glad I gave Dragonsbane a second go. I can see, I think, what put the fifteen-year-old me off, back then. Hambly writes some wonderfully poetic descriptions — she’s particularly keen on the effects of light, be it moonlight glinting off a dragon’s scales, or a landscape bathed by a dawning sun — and these perhaps slowed down the action a bit too much for the reader I was at the time. Now, I can appreciate them more.

It was, when it came out, a standalone novel, and though Hambly has since written more books with the same characters, it can still be read on its own, and I’m glad I finally did.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Eerily (or not) I was re-reading Hambly a few months ago. My reasons were very similar to your own, but my experience was quite different. I read a lot of Hambly in my teens and twenties – more or less until she switched over to writing in other genres – and always thought ‘The Rainbow Abyss’ was her last fantasy book, despite the fact that it was intended as the first book in a two-book sequence. The concept was interesting: a magician and his acolyte receive a cry for help via another world from a beleaguered group of fellow magicians, a world where magic is dying out or largely gone. Anxious to help their colleagues, the magician decides to travel to this other world via ‘The Rainbow Abyss’. The book ends with the pair on the cusp of doing so. There were enough clues for me to realise that this other world was actually our own and that the group of beleaguered magicians were actually nazis. It was a big departure thematically for Hambly and I was curious to know where she was going with it. Only the second book never materialised. I just assumed that Hambly had abandoned the project. Then around five months ago, I discovered I was mistaken. I’m guessing the second book never made it to Irish bookshops?
    This is where you and I had very different experiences. You say –

    ‘I was glad I gave Dragonsbane a second go. I can see, I think, what put the fifteen-year-old me off, back then. Hambly writes some wonderfully poetic descriptions — she’s particularly keen on the effects of light, be it moonlight glinting off a dragon’s scales, or a landscape bathed by a dawning sun — and these perhaps slowed down the action a bit too much for the reader I was at the time. Now, I can appreciate them more.’

    I’d read the first book before, but that was ’91. I decided I ought to read it again before starting the second book. What struck me first was how nicely Hambly writes, but this was consistently undermined by the pace. The book was so sloooow. Eventually I abandoned it, and started the second – albeit with no more success.

    What I brought away from the whole experience was that I was clearly a very patient reader to have finished the first book! (I should add that I read Dragonsbane years ago, and would rate it as one of her best).

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    The idea behind The Rainbow Abyss sounds intriguing. I’m tempted to read it, now — or at least the sequel — just to see what happens.

    Interesting to hear you had a similar experience reading her, finding the pace slow. I think one of the reasons I came back to the book was guilt that I hadn’t finished it, so I’m glad I wasn’t alone in my reasons for that!

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Funnily enough, I don’t remember having an issue with the pace the first time! I should add that both books are fine apart from their length – the characters are engaging and there is some sort of forward momentum.

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