Rumors surrounding the triple-feature-film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings suggest that Arwen, the daughter of Elrond and a decidedly secondary character, is being transformed into a much larger figure in the movie of the Ring, mostly because the tale is noticeably lacking in roles for women. If any of the novels of Barbara Hambly ever get adapted for the big (or small) screen, this kind of accommodation won’t be necessary. Hambly’s novels contain ample leading roles for female characters, and most of those characters are resourceful, complex, fallible, and fascinating. While one or two of her characters may not live up to the standard established by her most outstanding women, you won’t find any simpering princesses or fainting maidens in Hambly’s novels. The development of her writing over the past fifteen years also suggests that she has been gradually focusing her attention on the most interesting and complex of those characters, culminating in some of her most recent and most well-developed work to date.
Barbara Hambly has been a prolific and popular author of fantasy and horror since the early 1980s. Her principal novels include the Darwath trilogy (The Time of the Dark, The Walls Of Air, and The Armies Of Daylight), published in 1982-83 and followed by two related books set in the same world, The Mother Of Winter (1996) and Icefalcon’s Quest (1998). She recently revisited characters from her early novel Dragonsbane (1985) and added a trilogy of novels that follow it, consisting of Dragonshadow (1999), Knight Of the Demon Queen (2000), and the forthcoming Dragonstar. Another early novel, The Ladies of Mandrigyn (out of print, 1984), is followed at intervals by The Witches Of Wenshar (1987) and The Dark Hand Of Magic (1990). This is not her entire output, but these are what I consider to be her major works in the fantasy genre, and the books whose characters I’ll discuss in this article.
Hambly’s novels tend to feature the usual cast of fantasy characters: wizards and warriors, with a few courtiers and assorted ruffians thrown in for good measure. In some of her worlds, the use of magic is forbidden by civil or religious authorities, but in others it’s an accepted part of life. Many of her novels are set in worlds with roughly medieval-era technologies and political systems; the world of the Darwath novels resembles Europe in the late middle ages, and the Winterlands of Dragonsbane and its sequels bears a resemblance, at least in its political situation, to Britain after the withdrawal of the Roman empire.
The Darwath trilogy begins with a typical fantasy device in which a pair of young 20th-century Americans are accidentally drawn into a parallel universe. In this world, a small civilization of city-states is fleeing in terror from mysterious and deadly creatures known only as the Dark. Into this world, along with biker and apparent loser Rudy Solis (an intriguing character in his own right, but not our subject here), comes Gil Patterson, 24, and a Ph.D. student in medieval studies at a major university in southern California. The standard biographical blurb that appears in each of Hambly’s books mentions prominently her own Master’s degree in medieval history, and Hambly’s background enriches her portrait of Gil and her life as a graduate student. (It’s also a pretty handy degree to have if you’re planning on writing medieval-era fantasy fiction.) As a former grad student myself, I can testify to the clarity and wit with which Hambly describes Gil’s life, as well as the barrenness and isolation that scholarly work can lead to.
After getting drawn into the parallel universe, Gil is persuaded by her companions to learn some basic skills with a sword for her self-defense in a highly dangerous world. She finds herself gradually drawn into the camaraderie of the royal Guards and the discipline of mastering a physical skill. Hambly never dwells upon the contrast between the isolation and intellectualism of Gil’s former life, and the esprit de corps and physicality of her new life, but the difference is there, and it rounds out Gil’s character in interesting ways. Again, speaking as a former grad student, I can hardly think of anything more foreign to a scholar than a life in the military, so to see Gil move from one to the other, and to understand why she chooses one over the other, made me stop and seriously consider the essential values underlying scholarly study. Here was a character very much like me, deciding that scholarly study was less relevant, less necessary than defending a civilization threatened by a collapse similar to that of the Dark Ages. What was my scholarship accomplishing? Who was I defending with my articles and dissertation, or how was my work benefiting others? Of course, unlike Gil, I wasn’t transported to an alternate universe, so the question of what to do with my life was less immediate for me than it was for her, but the issues remained.
Gil doesn’t entirely abandon her intellectual pursuits, however. Her study of ancient manuscripts and artifacts in the Keep of Dare (where the tattered remnants of humanity have sought shelter) is instrumental in solving the mystery of why the Dark arose, as well as in working out the day-to-day difficulties of administering a royal realm and a working city in the confining quarters of a fortress carved out of a mountain. Gil manages to find a way to fulfill both her intellectual and physical capacities, while at the same time developing a romantic relationship and several deep friendships, a feat that seems somewhat improbable when looked at through the myth of the modern “Superwoman,” expected to advance her own career, raise a family, and have some free time for hobbies. This is a theme that Hambly will develop further with the character of Jenny Waynest, whose struggles with these issues form part of the core of her identity.
By the end of The Time Of the Dark, Gil has become a full-fledged member of the Guards, and by the end of the trilogy, she has elected to leave her studies and her life in our universe behind. Along the way, she falls in love with the aged wizard Ingold Inglorion, a relationship that Hambly handles deftly and subtly; the reader gradually recognizes their love at about the same pace that Gil and Ingold themselves recognize it. This unlikely couple is the focus of Hambly’s next volume in the series, The Mother Of Winter, a book that explores their relationship in more depth, and in which we see Gil tested, both physically and psychologically, far more strenuously than she was in the Darwath trilogy. What makes Gil’s character work in the Darwath books is the diversity of her interests; she’s a warrior, but also a scholar, while at the same time she builds relationships with others and avoids the personal isolation common to both types of characters.
Although Gil is one of the primary foci of the Darwath trilogy, she isn’t the only woman of substance. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Minalde, the widowed queen of the Realm and mother of infant boy Altir, heir to the Realm. Minalde’s courage and strength, both in her defense of her son (who, it must be mentioned, may have ancestral memories of the Dark that will aid humanity in defeating them, once he’s old enough to understand and articulate them), and also in standing up to those who criticize her relationship with the outworlder Rudy, deserve credit. In addition, there are some fine supporting characters (not all of them virtuous) in the ranks of the citizens, Guards, and clerics of the Keep of Dare. The Darwath trilogy provides one of the most gender-balanced casts of characters I’ve encountered in a fantasy world.
Hambly’s next novel after the Darwath trilogy, The Ladies of Mandrigyn, seems to offer many opportunities for strong female characters: the women of the formerly very patriarchal city of Mandrigyn, their men captured and forced to work as slaves in the mines of the evil wizard Altiokis, are faced with the task of running the city by themselves. A small group of them band together under the leadership of the mercenary soldier Sun Wolf (himself kidnapped and forced to lead the women) and, trained by Sun Wolf in swordfighting and various other kinds of combat, they storm the mines and free the men. It ought to be the perfect plot situation for an author like Hambly.
Unfortunately, the actual novel is somewhat disappointing. Two principal female characters emerge: Star Hawk, one of Sun Wolf’s captains in his mercenary band, who sets off to find and rescue him after he is kidnapped by the women of Mandrigyn; and Sheera Galernis, the leader of the corps of fighting women and the lover of Prince Tarrin, who himself is leading the resistance movement among the men enslaved in the mines. Star Hawk, despite her status as a rare female captain in an overwhelmingly male mercenary band, is a fairly one-dimensional character. Her sole motivation throughout the novel is to rescue Sun Wolf. As she works her way closer to finding him, she gradually realizes she is in love with him, even as Sun Wolf, across the continent in Mandrigyn, realizes the same about her. Unlike Gil and Ingold’s unlikely romance in the Darwath trilogy, this relationship is both predictable and handled somewhat clumsily. With Gil and Ingold, we the readers gradually become aware of the closeness between them, but with Star Hawk and Sun Wolf, not only do the characters realize their love for each other in something like a blinding flash, that realization is then repeated and emphasized multiple times until they finally meet near the end of the novel.
Sheera Galernis is somewhat more interesting than Star Hawk, but, like her, Sheera’s primary motivation throughout the novel is to rescue her man, in this case Prince Tarrin, who is imprisoned with the rest of the men of Mandrigyn in the mines of Altiokis. Like Star Hawk, Sheera has the soul of a leader and is believeable as the woman who united her fellow women and led them to decide to do the unthinkable: an assault on Altiokis’s stronghold. The women’s fighting corps has the potential for some serious tension and drama; one can easily imagine the women struggling to overcome their upbringing as dainty and “civilized” ladies in order to become a lethal fighting force, but for the most part, the women go at it with an astonishing bloodthirstiness. Now, it’s certainly possible that these women have a certain rage buried in their souls by years of oppression at the hands of their men, that would emerge once the men were gone and they were given permission to express that rage, but Hambly doesn’t quite give us the justification that would be necessary for such an explanation.
And there’s a minor logistical problem, as well. Since there is still a (male) governor in place in Mandrigyn, appointed by Altiokis, and since the patriarchal rules still technically hold, the women must train in the utmost secrecy. The women seem to find it surprisingly easy to find several hours a day, after nightfall, to come to Sheera’s home and train with Sun Wolf, while simultaneously running the businesses of the city, and not giving any evidence to Altiokis’s spies and the remaining elderly men in the city that anything is amiss. In fact, the secrecy of their training results in a situation ripe for intrigue and betrayal, but none occurs, leaving the reader expecting a showdown and not quite getting one.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn is a puzzle to me. As I’ve mentioned above, the initial plot situation seems like a perfect setup for Hambly to explore some issues surrounding women in leadership roles. After the Darwath trilogy, which proved that she could write female characters with style and substance, that’s just what I expected her to do, which makes the weaknesses of The Ladies that much more frustrating. Luckily, this novel seems to be an aberration, and her most recent works move her solidly in the direction she seemed to be setting for herself with the Darwath trilogy.
If Gil Patterson is an intriguing female hero, and Sheera Galernis and Star Hawk are somewhat disappointing, Hambly’s most compelling and unusual hero is Jenny Waynest in Dragonsbane and its trilogy of sequels, Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that recently Hambly seems to be focusing on some of her most complex characters, and it’s interesting to note that Dragonsbane was a stand-alone novel for fourteen years before Hambly returned to its characters and began writing the trilogy that follows it. When Dragonshadow was released, I was both pleased to see more of its characters, as well as intrigued as to what Hambly would do with them after so many years. I am pleased to report that her characterizations are even deeper, more complex and conflicted, and more mature and seasoned in the later novels.
Jenny Waynest is a village witch in the Winterlands, a desolate and remote northern country from which the royal city in the south has withdrawn nearly all support and protection. Jenny is about as unlikely a hero as you could expect: middle-aged, the mother of two young boys (though not married to their father), short, and hardly a fashion plate.
Not only is Jenny older than your average fantasy heroine and mousy-looking, her powers as a wizard are also less than spectacular. She’s a village witch, not a powerful mage, and her powers are seriously limited. In the world Hambly has created for these novels, magecraft requires almost complete isolation and devotion to its study; for Jenny to increase her powers even slightly, she would have to cut herself off almost entirely from the rest of the world, and even then, her inborn powers are small enough that she probably wouldn’t see a dramatic change. Instead, she lives apart from her lover and children, so as to conserve and protect what little power she has, while still allowing herself to see them periodically. We don’t see Jenny attempt magics that are outside her powers and fail; by this time in her life she knows very well the limits of those powers, and what comes of attempting to reach beyond them. We do see Jenny stretch herself to the limits of her stamina, however, by sustaining her limited magics for long periods of time, while she’s also physically and mentally exhausted. We also see, and feel along with her, her frustration at her inability to expand her power and to use it to aid those she loves. Modern women (and men) faced with divided loyalties between the fulfillment of family and the fulfillment of a rewarding career have a sister in Jenny Waynest. Unlike Gil Patterson, who is apparently able to do all the many things she wants to do and still have time for the occasional walk in the woods, Jenny’s more complicated life forces her to make daily choices between things and people she loves.
Jenny’s lover and the father of her children is John Aversin, Thane of the Winterlands. Charged with protecting the land and its people from raiders and other dangers, and with making the barren and inhospitable land as agriculturally productive as possible, John is also an unlikely hero. Much to the dismay of the impressionable young courtier who comes to summon him to the royal city to dispense with a pesky dragon, John is not a glamorous, haughty lord, but rather a pig farmer who wears spectacles and has an extraordinary ability to recall trivial facts from the many ancient texts and fragments in his library. John understands Jenny’s divided loyalties better than anyone, and faced with protecting an indefensible land with insufficient resources from the king, he can also understand her frustration at her limited powers.
In both Dragonsbane and Dragonshadow, Jenny is tempted to forsake all she loves in order to increase her magical powers. In Dragonsbane, the dragon Morkeleb, whom Jenny and John originally set out to kill and wind up saving, turns Jenny into a dragon to show her what she has the potential to be. As a dragon, Jenny has not only vastly greater power as a mage, she also has the ability to see the world as dragons see it: to hear the call of gold, and to understand the ways of the world in the dragons’ long-lived perspective. Reluctantly, Jenny gives up being a dragon to return to her home, her sons, and her lover, but she is haunted by the knowledge of what she had to give up to return to them.
In Dragonshadow, Jenny is possessed by a demon called Amayon, one of the most loathsome spirits I have ever seen cross the pages of a fantasy novel. Jenny is revolted by his lusts and his cruelty, but she is also tortured by the almost limitless magical power that she can access through him. Even after she is released from Amayon’s control, her relief at being freed is tinged with a continuous longing to return to him and to the power he possesses. In the most chilling turn of the novel, Jenny realizes that she cannot be sure whether the longing she feels is the result of Amayon actually calling to her, or a reflection of her own fallibilities: her own capacity for violence and cruelty, but most of all her own lust for power. Jenny’s experience with Amayon gives her a shockingly close view of the darker side of her own psyche, and, by extension, of the darkness that lives in every human being. In this respect, Hambly’s characterization of Jenny is not specific to her gender, but is much more universal.
The other side of what Hambly does with Jenny’s character has to do with the price that must be paid for saving those you love; near the beginning of Knight of the Demon Queen, Jenny reflects that in the old ballads of the dragonslayers, the hero always returned home to life as usual. John and Jenny’s life after their encounters with dragons and demons in Dragonshadow is anything but normal, and this is also part of the point Hambly is trying to make: making a personal sacrifice to save someone or something you love doesn’t hurt once and then end. It’s the kind of pain and struggle that haunts you constantly, day after day, until you find a way to live with it.
As a feminist, I’m not often insulted or offended by the treatment of female characters in modern fantasy fiction, but I’m not often impressed by their depth and realism, either. Novels without a single major female character, such as The Lord Of The Rings, are becoming less and less common. For the most part, the women who appear in modern novels are, if not as impressive in their leadership skills and personal qualities as Gil and Jenny, at least not simpering fools waiting for knights to rescue them. Although Sheera and Star Hawk fall somewhat short of the mark in The Ladies of Mandrigyn, Gil and Jenny, as well as others of Barbara Hambly’s characters, have provided me with consistently compelling and rewarding reading. Her most recent books include Icefalcon’s Quest (which follows a secondary male character from the Darwath trilogy, but also introduces his sister, Cold Death, who shows promise) and Dragonshadow and Knight of the Demon Queen, suggesting that her work is moving in the direction of some of her most interesting characters. Hambly is a seasoned author with both impressive accomplishments and near-misses to her credit; young or inexperienced authors looking for good strategies for creating complex and realistic characters would do well to study both her female and her male characters carefully. I look forward to seeing what what direction her work takes in the future.
Catherine Pellegrino is an Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.