Persecuted Wizards: Barbara Hambly’s The Rainbow Abyss

The Rainbow Abyss is a deeply absorbing fantasy novel set in a world with a lower than medieval tech level in which magic users are so persecuted that killing them doesn’t even count as murder; it’s just fruging, the way you might fruge a rat. In this world lives Rhion the Brown, apprenticed to Jaldis the Blind — who has magical glasses for sight and a magical voicebox for speech. Rhion keeps on studying magic despite the persecution because he wants to know — he wants to know how the universe works and he loves to practice magic. Besides, he tried to kill that part of himself and leave magic alone and it didn’t work. Jaldis used magic to open a dark well, a rainbow abyss, through the spaces between universes, and through it he heard people in another universe crying that magic didn’t work there any longer and then needed help. Before they can help, Rhion and Jaldis are on the run again, but the problems of the other world keep worrying them through everything else that happens.

NO SPOILERS YET

Hambly’s worlds are always wonderful, and this one is no exception. It all feels real and fits together, the world and the people who grew up in it, good and bad, all shaped by the social and economic and political constraints their world puts on them. There are precious scraps of knowledge in books, there are people who want what wizards can do for them but don’t want to leave the wizards alive afterwards, there are competing schools of wizardry that distrust each other. This is a polytheistic world, but the gods all seem to hate magic, though some are more vehemently against it than others. You have the occasional dilletante scholar like the Duke of Mere, but even he is bound by expediency and the wider political situation. Then there’s his daughter, Tally, with whom Rhion falls impossibly in love because they share the same sense of humour.

Over the course of the book Rhion grows up, there’s a sweet love story with a bittersweet ending, not to mention lots of well-constructed excitement and peril. It’s light reading, and it goes fast, and there’s lots of lovely repartee. Another nice thing is that Rhion is plump and short-sighted — charmingly unusual in a protagonist.

I really like this book, and it would be my favourite of Hambly’s fantasy novels if it didn’t have a sequel. If you’re prepared to read The Rainbow Abyss as a standalone on the basis of what I have said so far, stop reading now and go and do that.

SPOILERS

The sequel is called The Magicians of Night. Spoilers coming up from now on, for the world and a little of the plot of Rainbow Abyss and for all of Magicians of Night. At the end of The Rainbow Abyss, Jaldis and Rhion go into the void, to help the people of the world that has lost magic. It’s a terrific ending, and it leaves you really wanting more. But in Magicians of Night it is revealed that they have come into this world. That wouldn’t be so bad — Hambly has successfully written wizards going to and fro to this world in the Antryg books. But they are in Nazi Germany, where they are told the Nazis are the last magic users and they have to help them, until they (of course) learn differently and manage to escape.

The problem with this is that a made-up world, no matter how good, is a cloth constructed of words and air flung over a skin of character and plot. When you put something real into that, you have to be sure that the warp and weft will hold, as well as the connections to the loom itself. The stronger the weight of the real thing, the harder it tugs at the fabric — and really the Holocaust is a very fraught thing to use in fiction at all. It has been done successfully — The White Hotel, Days of Cain, Briar Rose, The Red Magician — but it’s really hard. The effect it has in Magicians of Night is to invalidate all the persecution of wizards that Hambly has set up so well — suddenly it looks like nothing that Jaldis has been blinded and had his tongue cut out, when he can make magical replacements. Hambly’s world, which looked so real and solid, suddenly feels like gossamer, and her story, which was so enjoyable, suddenly feels trivial. It wasn’t an awful thing to do or anything, it just couldn’t hold the weight piled on it — it was an experiment and it didn’t work. That happens sometimes. I’d much rather Hambly tried new things than kept on going through the motions of familiar things.

Nevertheless, The Magicians of Night is one of the few books I genuinely wish I hadn’t read, because I can’t forget it and it casts its shadow back onto The Rainbow Abyss. I want to be absorbed in this story about plump Rhion and the ingredients he’s accumulating for the love spells that are his speciality, but every mention of the dark well and the other world serves to remind me what’s coming. Every so often I try to read it again, to read it as I first read it before the sequel was published, and every time I nearly do.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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