Dragonshadow by Barbara Hambly (HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 297 pages, paperback; published 21 June 1999.)
In the house where I live we are four manly chaps. All of us read actual books, some more than others and me more than anyone, but I'm the only sf fan for miles. My flatmates are reasonably tolerant people, but the sight of an sf book (with spaceships/robots/planets etc. on the cover) brings out something in them and they feel the need for a bit of good natured ribbing about "speccy space books". Which is fair enough. I simply remember AE van Vogt's old call-to-arms, "Fans are slans" (by which that old Neitzschean meant the next stage in evolution) and quietly note every single word they say (come the revolution... Ha ha ha ha!!!!!). But I digress.
This is what the sight of an sf book does to them.
The sight of a fantasy novel (shame!) with a dragon quite openly displayed on its cover (shouldn't be allowed!), a useless sub-Tolkien map inside (gah!) and proudly calling itself Dragonshadow (burn it! burn it!) led even my partner to smile her wry smile and say, "Hmm," as though in sympathy. My flatmates? Well, I dread to think.
I note all of this because I'm not a particular fan of fantasy novels and am usually slow to spring to their defence; but because of Dragonshadow I may be just a little bit quicker the next time I come across some poor urchin being roughed up a bit by Martin Amis fans because s/he was reading a fantasy novel.
The plot? Dragons, wizards, demons and threatened kingdoms. Nothing too outrageous, really. The book picks up four years after the previous book, Dragonsbane, which I haven't read, but will be looking out for now.
What caught my attention, apart from the lovely prose, which was at once intelligent and intelligible, practical and emotional, were the two central characters Jenny and John: a middle-aged wizard in the full flush of the menopause and her husband, a bookish, greying Dragonsbane (or Dragonslayer, if you prefer).
I liked both of them almost immediately, they're funny, intelligent and subject to ordinary doubts and fears. Barbara Hambly never tells us, "Jenny/John was afraid, very afraid," but follows the train of their thoughts to their logical and frequently pessimistic conclusions. If I was them and I was thinking like that I'd be afraid!
Both Jenny and John are heroic, but they aren't heroes, only people trying to get on with what they think should be done; risking Hell and high water for what they love and believe in. When disaster strikes, in the form of a demon-possessed mage press-ganging dragons and other mages alike into his private army, they're forced to simply knuckle down and do their level best against this (to my mind underplayed) threat. Sacrifices have to be made, real sacrifices producing complicated emotions which it seems may yet be their undoing.
It was refreshing to see this likable couple still in love after so many years. Not the faintly ludicrous adolescent love of, say, Romeo and Juliet or Wuthering Heights, but the love of a couple who have become like old friends who know each other well.
Watching this bond between them being stretched, knotted and frayed as their duties forced them into situations not of their making, and what's more, giving a damn about it, was the high point of the book for me.
The story never collapsed into mawkish sentiment (though there was ample opportunity to do so), and the emotions provoked were played out better, through their understatement in small gestures and exchanges, than swooning histrionics could ever have managed.
What's most impressive is the prose this book employs. Dragonshadow is a relatively short book for the genre. It never drags or lingers overlong, but by the same token it's certainly not a surface romp across a magic kingdom. The pace is perfectly judged.
I'm going to recommend Dragonshadow to my cynical girlfriend as a remarkably human book, occasionally shot through with genius. My flatmates, more's the pity, would refuse to read it on principle, but it's their loss.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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© Stuart Carter 18 September 1999