Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane
As soon as I saw the cover of this book, I suspected that I was going to enjoy it. I know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but when you read enough in a given genre you start to know what styles of covers tend to be associated with the books that you particularly enjoy. This book’s cover evoked the fantasy and science fiction of the 1980s, like Dragonriders of Pern, or Xanth novels; in other words, it reminded me of a lot of the books that I read in middle school, usually by my dad’s recommendation (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, upon research, I discovered that the cover artist is the same for some of these titles). By the time I had finished the first chapter, I was enjoying it as much as anything I’d read in a long time.
In some ways, this is a classic adventure-style fantasy, with dragons and witches and gnomes and princes and so forth. At least, that’s what it looks like on the outside, and it does carry through the general lightness of that sub genre; that is to say this is not a heavy piece of epic fantasy. As much as I enjoy the epics, I found this to be refreshing. I didn’t need to know four thousand years of in-world history, keep track of twelve different in-world religions, and follow along with two dozen different storylines over the course of ten volumes. The world-building in this was just enough to contextualize the story and let me make sense of what was happening, and that’s all it needed to be.
Yet in other ways, this is a really unique piece. It features characters built to defy many of the genre’s tropes. The whole piece is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman whose internal tug-of-war between her witchcraft and her maternal responsibilities form a central part of the narrative, and follows the adventures she has with her husband, who is the lord of a forgotten, inhospitable region, a dragon slayer, and a garage tinkerer. The thread of both of them struggling with the weight of their responsibilities, and how they stand firm, is one of the best parts of the story.
Plus, the writing itself is beautiful. It’s not lyrical in the way that I find Patrick Rothfuss’s writing to be, but it has a certain substantialness to it that I really enjoyed. Hambly is not afraid to use unusual words and complex sentence structures, many of which I fear a modern editor might have cut, much to the book’s detriment (in my opinion). As fond as I am of Sanderson’s “transparent prose” concept, this book would not have been nearly as good with a less florid style of writing. It never gets in the way, but it’s there in the back of your mind as you’re reading, augmenting the story and making the whole book feel much richer than just a standard fantasy romp. Certainly the writing made for startlingly evocative visuals.
This book was on my reading list because I’d heard Brandon Sanderson mention several times that it was one of the novels that first got him into the fantasy genre. After my disappointment of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I had high hopes for what this book would be, and it met and exceeded them completely. I highly recommend giving Dragonsbane a try soon.