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Raymond's Reviews #23

%T The Dark Hand of Magic
%A Barbara Hambly
%I Del Rey/Ballantine
%D March 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 309
%G 0-345-35807-4

Barbara Hambly has enjoyed a deserved reputation as one of the better contemporary fantasists ever since her impressive debut with the Darwath trilogy (The Time Of The Dark, The Walls Of Air, The Army Of Daylight) in 1982. She doesn't yet quite match the quirky brilliance of Barry Hughart, the stunning originality and power of Tim Powers's best work, or the subtle beauty and fine-drawn characterization of Anne MacAvoy's best novels; but her writing is solidly crafted, mercifully low in cliches, and far better than most of the fantasy-labelled yardage on the shelves of your local chain bookstore.

She demonstrates this again with The Dark Hand of Magic, third of the "Unschooled Wizard" trilogy after The Ladies Of Mandrigyn and The Witches Of Wenshar.

In Ladies, the men of the subject city of Mandrigyn have been enslaved by the deathless Wizard-King Altiokis. The women of Mandrigyn kidnap the mercenary captain Sun Wolf to battle-train them for a desperate attempt to free their husbands and brothers and sons and lovers. But Sun Wolf is more than he knows; the drug the women use to coerce him is the substance of the Great Trial that either kills those born with a hereditary talent for magic or forges them into wizards. Sun Wolf is one of the mageborn....

Altiokis is defeated, of course. But Ladies was not merely or even mostly about good against evil. Much more of it is about a subtler trial -- Sun Wolf's discovery at forty that the way of the warrior is closed to him; and about the hard and unlikely love he has discovered with the warlady Starhawk, she who had been his second-in-command and sword-comrade through years of battle.

Book II continues Sun Wolf's story. The power to use magic is also a compul- sion, and an unschooled wizard is dangerous. Sun Wolf sets out to find a teacher. Most of the mageborn are dead, long since murdered by Altiokis; they few that remain have been in hiding for so many years that the traditions of the art have been forgotten. Sun Wolf and Starhawk hear of a teacher in the desert-edge kingdom of Wenshar -- but what they find there is horror, mystery and a string of demonic murders. They learn more of the nature and cost of magic.

In The Dark Hand of Magic, Sun Wolf and Starhawk are reunited with their mercenary company. It has contracted to beseige the town of Vorsal -- but there is a wizard in Vorsal powerful enough to hex the troops. Sun Wolf is caught between his loyalty to his old comrades and his burning need to be taught by a true mage. But Sun Wolf's most terrible test is still coming -- because the man he's sought as a teacher has both the power and the malice to enslave him forever.

Hambly builds to a climax almost unbearable in its dark emotional intensity. The harsh, realistic treatment of mercenary life is reminiscent of Glen Cook's Black Company novels (though from the publishing histories it would be hard to make a case for influence, in either direction). These are not books for the sentimental or goopily romantic; there is nothing easy about love or magic in Hambly's world, and Sun Wolf pays a hard price for his growth. In this he is not much like most fantasy heroes -- but is very much like a real human being.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sat Mar 03 02:33:21 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>