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.