Pros: John and Jenny, of course.
Cons: Very disturbing images and not for the younger crowd.
One of my favourite authors is a bit of a polymath -- she can write science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, paranormal and historical fiction, and does it all with a great deal of skill. She is, of course, Barbara Hambly, an author that I have been enjoying for almost four decades now. One of her best novels was Dragonsbane, where she took the traditional idea of questing after a killer dragon, and turned into an entirely new idea.
John Aversin, Dragonsbane and Thane of the Winterlands, has been hailed in the past as a hero. But now disaster has struck, and for his dealing with Aohila, the Demon Queen, he has been sentenced to being burnt alive as a heretic. That was his situation at the end of the third book of the series, and in the opening of the fourth book, Dragonstar, John is about to be taken from his cell to the waiting pyre outside. It finally appears that John's luck has run out, and there isn't much hope of rescue.
His love and wife, Jenny Waynest, is not in good shape either. She's survived a brutal fight to save her son Ian from the clutches of demons, but that effort has left her without her own powers of magic. On top of that, she's been possessed by the demon Amayon, who still haunts her with seductive promises despite breaking free of him. And then there's that poison arrow in her shoulder, shot by the gnomes to use her to lure the dragon Morkeleb in revenge for driving them out of their home in the first place.
Things are dire, to say the least.
Outside of John and Jenny, there are other bleak things happening within the kingdom of Belmarie. Gareth, the young regent for his father King Uriens, has nearly lost his pregnant wife Trey to the plague, but it seems that she has recovered. But both John and Jenny know that is false, for Trey is possessed by a demon, and when it seems that the King has recovered as well. And there are dark murders and strange doings in the city. While Jenny manages to be helped by Morkeleb, and the gnome mage Miss Mab, John is carried off the pyre by another dragon, Corvin, who was once a human, to the city of Prokep.
Prokep is ruins, where once the demons were sealed away for good. In bits does John begin to figure out what is happening to the people of his world, and how the demons have all to do with it. It's a horrifying situation, and one that appears not to have any solution to it...
It's one of Ms. Hambly's more subtle novels, and it does take some time to pick apart the mysteries. On the other hand, it's also one of the best thought out fantasy novels that I've come across in a long time. I came away from this one with a sense of there being culture and history behind the story, and a very complex world -- this tends to be overlooked and badly done by most fantasy authors. But when it is done well, it can be a real kicker.
Another great point here are the characters of John and Jenny. Unlike the precocious teenagers that litter most of fantasy and science fiction, these are mature adults. Both of them have had to go through life-changing experiences with all of the scars and baggage, and they live with it. They also have deep emotions about each other, and have to cope with that soul-corrosive thing called jealousy, with all of the doubt and questioning that brings. One of the best scenes in the book is when John and Jenny find one another again, and it's so beautifully crafted that I cheered. In spite of the vileness, that moment of love and reunion made the book for me.
Finally, all of the little threads and plot are gathered together, the ending is grand and threatening enough to make it all convincing. This moves so much of the fantasy genre out of cliche, and makes it appealing to not just teens but also adults. I rather like that.
Now a caveat -- the imagery is rather strong, and at times very disturbing. So I would not recommend this one to the sensitive or younger teens. Too, while there is a brief synopsis of the previous books, it is recommended that the previous three books be read, as there is so much that is built upon in this one.
All in all, this one gets four stars, and a hearty recommendation from me.
Knight of the Demon Queen
Dragonstar -- you are here
2002; Del Rey/Ballantine Books, Random House Publishing