Pros: Fast paced, and devastating to read.
Cons: Not for children, as there is considerable violence and some disturbing scenes in this one.
This year I have been on a Barbara Hambly kick, what with so much of her backlist being released in e-book format for the Nook and the Kindle. Besides her Benjamin January series, the other collection that has really grabbed my attention has been her Winterlands series, which began with Dragonsbane.
As Dragonshadow opens, four years have passed since John Aversin and Jenny traveled to the aid of Prince Gareth. And in the Winterlands, things have managed to go fairly well, what with a relative amount of peace and a new child being added to the family. But when word comes of a dragon being loose, both John and Jenny -- and their children, no less -- will be pitched into a conflict that is far wider than either of them can imagine.
While John goes off to fight the dragon, Jenny is already caught up in a siege where a bandit leader has a witch working for his side. Jenny and this other are casting spells and counterspells, each one going to the limits to win. But where Jenny does have scruples where her magic is concerned, this unknown witch is untrained, but possessed of immense power. For Jenny, it becomes a personal matter when she discovers that the young witch, Ysuelt, is barely a child, abused and coerced into working for the bandit leader, and Jenny hatches a plan to free the girl and defeat the raiders.
But John discovers all too quickly that his own quest is a trap -- and it's set not for himself, but for his young son, Ian, just learning his own skills at magic. Worst still, Ian is enslaved by a magician who uses demons to control his tame followers, using a brutal mix of temptation and sensuality to trap them. When John builds his fragile airship, the Milkweed, and sets off to find Morkeleb the Black, the dragon that aided them once before, the journey will uncover a conspiracy and the bitter knowledge that the only way to save his son may be to kill him...
If Dragonsbane took and turned the entire classic idea of a quest to kill a dragon upside down, then Dragonshadow does the same thing about demons. It's also far darker than Dragonsbane was, and this time the stakes are even more terrible to contemplate. This doesn't mean that it is a bad novel, far from it -- it's one of the best fantasy novels that I've come across and the author is not at all afraid to push the limits. I was both intrigued and shuddering as I read through this one, and the novel turned out to be one of those that kept me up all night as I had to know what happens next.
Recently authors in the paranormal subset of romance have been playing around with what I think of as 'Sugarfang' novels, where the hero (and much more rarely the heroine) is some sort of supernatural creature, be it vampire, werewolf or demon, but rarely does the creature have any real menace to body or soul. This time, there is quite a bit of risk for any human that meddles into trying to use a demon, and the demons here are ones that would send you screaming into the night. In Ms. Hambly's very skilled prose, she gets it right -- there's just enough temptation to lure, but the darkness behind it all is very dangerous indeed, and while the language here is quite strong and the imagery disturbing, it works.
Which leads me to a caveat -- this is not a novel for younger teens, or even older ones. There are some scenes that have very adult content, with plenty of violence and rape, and it's not pleasant reading. Nor should it be. Fortunately, it's not gratuitous either, which is how I managed to get through it. Just be warned that it's there.
This is what I like so much about Barbara Hambly's work -- not only does she let us see that our heroes have flaws, and are just as human as we are, but also does the same thing with the villains. Here things get very dark and dangerous for both John and Jenny, as each are tempted into desiring things best left alone.
This is how fantasy should be done, with plenty of new ideas to think over, and giving new twists to a genre that has dwindled a bit in the last couple of decades for me. Here, the old and tired clichés are tossed out and given new life, with characters that are compelling to read about, and a story that both inspires and sends shivers down your spine. Two more books follow in the series, and I intend to be reading them very soon.
Five stars overall, and very much recommended.
The Winterlands Series:
Dragonshadow -- you are here
Knight of the Demon Queen
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for adding this book to the database!
1999; Del Rey, Ballantine Books, Random House, Inc.