Pros: Terrific language, good plot, and characters you care about.
Cons: It's still a standard Hero vs. Dragon story.
Many years ago, nearly thirty now, I first read this novel, and I was enthralled by it. Now, well, I found it again during a recent excavation in my bookshelves, and decided that it was more than past time for a reread of it. And I found myself just as drawn in as I was the first time.
Barbara Hambly takes on the rather clichéd stereotype of the traditional story of a dragon and the hero sent out to slay him, and gives it an entirely new spin, along with some terrific twists and turns along the way. In the far north of a kingdom are the Winterlands, cold and poverty stricken, with bandits always ready to make hash of any unfortunate travelers that cross their path.
One of the few remaining lords of the north who still remembers what chivalry was is Lord John Aversin. Aging, his keep going to pieces around him, he is famous for being the only living man who has killed a dragon -- and survived. Now he is trying to do his best to protect the people who depend on him for support, and in what free time he has, indulging in his never ending quest for knowledge. With him is the mother of his sons, Jenny, who just happens to be a witch, and constantly in a war with herself over her yearning to be with John and her sons against the relentless hunger that she has to learn magic. Together they have made a happy life for themselves, if not exactly a safe one.
But one day that peace is shattered when a stranger from the south arrives, richly dressed, full of flowery speech and courtly graces, but with hardly the good common sense that is needed for survival in the north. Gareth is in for even more disappointment, for Lord John, the feared Dragonsbane, looks to be not much more than a farmer himself, and is a man well into middle age. With spectacles, to boot.
And when Gareth finds out that Jenny is going to be coming with them to the south, he gets even more flustered, for he both dreads and is attracted to her, for reasons that he can hardly understand. Both John and Jenny are not particularly keen on going south, but there is a dragon to be slain, and John, who knows all too well what can happen with dragons in the neighborhood, is intent on striking a bargain with the King to gain more support for the Winterlands.
But when they arrive at the king's capital city, they make several discoveries that reveal that it's all well and good to go with the intent of killing the dragon, but too often there can be a few complications along the way. Such as the fact that Gareth has been spinning quite a pack of lies...
Oh my. I hadn't had this much fun with a fantasy novel in a long long time. Barbara Hambly has created a world here that is complex, with plenty of history, and takes nearly every cliché and overdone scenario and gave them a good shaking up. Yes, there is quite a dreadful dragon here, but he's not quite what you think either. And the southern court is a spoiled and decadent one, where there is plenty of back-biting and double-dealing going on.
But most of all, besides a very good story to tell, the real draw here are the characters. And Ms. Hambly does a fantastic job with them -- I feel that I could walk down the street and meet John and Jenny, and know them on the spot. They are not the dewy eyed innocents that tend to appear in quest stories, but two very adult adults, with fears, children and plenty of emotional baggage. They are also willing to go to great lengths to save those that they love, and best of all they have personalities -- John may look and act the northern bumpkin, but he's certainly not an idiot. And Jenny may have the very normal reaction of feeling inferior when she meets the ladies of the court, but she knows them for the superficial twits they are, and sensibly rolls up her sleeves and gets to work when she finds a possible lead. These are two characters that I like very much and hope to read more of.
And then there's the dragon, of whom I will say nothing as I don't want to spoil the novel for anyone.
This book is going straight onto my keeper shelf, and I intend to go on and read the sequels to this one. For those who like their fantasy tales to be well-crafted with plenty of suspense and action, this might be for you.
Five stars, very much recommended.
Dragonsbane -- you are here
Knight of the Demon Queen
Many thanks to Pestyside for adding this to the database for me.
1985; Del Rey, Ballantine Books
ISBN 978-0-3453 -572-4