Aug 2 2008 2:27am

A treat to re-read: Barbara Hambly's Stranger at the Wedding

In a discussion once about "fantasy of manners," I mentioned Barbara Hambly’s Stranger At The Wedding (UK title Sorcerer’s Ward) and discovered that almost nobody else had read it. It’s an entirely stand-alone novel in the world of the Antryg Windrose books, with no overlap of significant characters. It’s a romantic comedy, it’s a mystery, and it’s a fantasy novel set in a world on the edge of industrialisation. The romance is never cloying, the integration of magic with the history and traditions of the world is flawless, and the world is fascinating.

All that is pretty much what I expect from Hambly. I like almost all her fantasy, and her historical novels as well. What makes this book special is the deftness of touch that whisks it into the fantasy-of-manners subgenre. I often don’t find comedy funny, but when humour arises out of character and situation it can catch me just right, and Stranger at the Wedding tickles me just the right way. It’s funny and frothy with wonderful characters and solid worldbuilding. No wonder I love it and read it at regular intervals. It isn’t a demanding book, but it’s a lovely one.

Magic isn’t respectable, and Kyra gave up being the respectable daughter of a merchant family with pretensions years ago. When she finds out in a practise scrying session that something terrible is going to happen to her little sister on her wedding day, she has to go home to stop the wedding. Kyra’s used to being independent, and she has to go back--at least temporarily--into dependence. She’s used to using magic, and she has to stop doing it, at least openly. She has to prevent disaster coming to her sister, holding off the wedding with ever more contrived postponements, and she has to appear to comply with the conventions while trying to find out what the disaster is, who’s causing it, and why. There’s lots of scheming, there’s an elopement, there’s the unexpected discovery of true love, and there’s magic to make everything more complicated. The satisfying and convoluted plot resolution reminds me in some ways of Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy.

As for the world, it has plausible economics, well-integrated magic and advancing technology. It has a city that feels like a city, and a class system that isn’t just aristocrats and scum. I swoon.

I know that online the answer to any question that starts “Am I the only one who...” is always “no,” so I’ll ask confidently not whether I’m the only one who liked this book, but who else liked it?

Eoghann Irving
1. Eoghann
Its been a while (okay probably a decade) since I read that book but I remember it fondly.

It's not a flashy or ground breaking book and perhaps that's why it doesn't get very much attention. But far more important in my view is that it's a solidly written book.

It's fun to read, the characters feel like they have a life and there's considerable depth to the world. I seem to recall references to hopping a broom as a method of getting married.
Samantha Brandt
2. Talia
Color me intrigued. I've read a couple of the Antryg Wintrose books and enjoyed them. I'll be on the lookout for this.
Rich Rennicks
3. RichR
Sadly, I haven't read that one. I loved some of Hambly's other fun fantasies (Witches of Wenshar & whatever the other in that series is called), and Stranger at the Wedding sounds similar. I must track it down.
[da ve]
4. slickhop
this book was just put on feminist SF's "top 24 obscure feminist sci books" ...
Tara Chang
5. tlchang
Sounds lovely. I'll have to read that one soon!

Your description reminds me a bit in flavor, in not in specifics of "Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The enchanted chocolate pot : being the correspondence of two young ladies of quality regarding various magical scandals in London and the country" by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.

It's kind of Jane Austin meets Harry Potter and I thoroughly enjoyed every fluffy minute of reading it. It's entirely in letter form - each of the authors is her own character. There's a sequel("The Grand Tour") which I enjoyed almost as much. Wish they'd do more.
David Goldfarb
6. David_Goldfarb
tlchang@5: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you sound as though you're not aware of the third book: The Mislaid Magician.
7. bibliobeque
I loved that book. I think that was the first thing of Barbara Hambly's I ever stumbled across, and I've gone on to read everything she ever wrote. For years, when I was working in retail, I told all my bosses about Kyra's dressmaker's "surcharge of horror," but they never would let me adapt it for our customers.
Paul Andinach
8. anobium
I love Stranger at the Wedding; it's easily my favourite novel by Hambly, and well-up in the list of my favourite novels by anybody. (And it has my second-favourite implementation of a particular type of romantic ending, after Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair.)

I nearly mentioned it on the re-reading thread, actually, because of what happened the second time I read it.

I'd loved it the first time I read it, but it took me years to find it again because "Sorceror's Ward" is so ill-fitting and so blandly generic a title that I could never remember it even when I was looking directly at a Barbara Hambly bibliography. When I found it again, it was under the other title, so I wasn't quite sure it was the same book, even though I recognised the cover illustration immediately. (That dress maybe be a horror, but once seen it's never to be forgotten.) And then I started reading it, and I still wasn't sure it was the same book, because there was so much in it that I didn't remember: as it turned out, I'd forgotten most of the actual plot, and only remembered the backstory (which is like the dress, difficult to forget). I'd almost, almost managed to convince myself that Barbara Hambly had somehow written two different books with the same premise and the same cover illustration, when the flashback sequence kicked in and it all came rushing back.
Paul Andinach
9. anobium
RichR: I loved some of Hambly's other fun fantasies (Witches of Wenshar & whatever the other in that series is called)

The first book in that series is The Ladies of Mandrigyn.

(Honesty obliges me to point out that there is also a third book, The Dark Hand of Magic - but simple humanity compels me to recommend that you remember the name only in order to avoid it. It is not fun at all.)
10. Steph Burgis
Oh, I loved this novel! This one and her Bride of the Rat God are my two favorite Hambly books, the ones I've re-read over and over again.
11. wolfinthewood
who else liked it?

Me. I also reread it at regular intervals.
12. vcmw
I loved that book. I think my favorite bit was the bit about the eggs required to make the wedding cake, and how there weren't necessarily any more available in the city. It's one of the few fantasy novels I can think of where relatively affluent characters run into world-building based restrictions on what they can buy to accomplish a practical aim. (I'm sure there are others, but I can't think of them, and it was a notable part of the story for me.)
13. Techslave

You keep putting things all 'full of win' up, at least in keeping with internet parlance. My respect for your taste keeps going up. Hambly is one of those writers whose work is rarely demanding in the literary sense but whose worlds and characters are rich and engrossing.
Bruce Cohen
14. SpeakerToManagers
I found this book a little more than 10 years ago while on a hunt for Hambly's books. I'd just read the Sun Cross duology and was really impressed by how well she handled the darkness of the story without the bogging down in depression.

I enjoyed Stranger at the Wedding a great deal. Not only is it a satisfying romance with a strong and independent female character, it manages to combine well-designed fantasy elements with romance, good characters, and an occasional level of silliness that the Marx brothers might have been able to work with. I like the word "frothy" as a description, very like a salad dressing made of immiscible elements that works precisely because they're so skillfully mixed.

Well, and besides all that, it's a lot of fun, and shows that Hambly is a mistress of many styles and genres. It's hard to believe it's so little known.
Clifton Royston
15. CliftonR
I love this and have it sitting on my shelf - though as I remember, the backstory is much darker than the description would lead you to believe. (I suspect that's what anobium is referring to; it gets deep into the reasons why magic would be suppressed if it were real and deep into dark personal territory.)

Just two days ago I handed one of my co-workers The Ladies of Mandrigyn to try, as he'd been complaining about generic fantasy series and how he didn't know where to find anything good to read.

For wonderful frothy one-offs, Bride of the Rat-God, set in 30s Hollywood with a great cast of original and stock characters, is teh win.

Also, while we are discussing Hambly, the court dinner scene in Dragonslayer gets my vote for best comedy scene in fantasy writing.

4 books in 4 paragraphs; I guess I'm a Hambly fan.
Bruce Arthurs
16. bruce-arthurs
Another vote (two; my wife enjoyed it as well) here for Hambly's book (and her work in general).

Also, re several mentions of BRIDE OF THE RAT-GOD: I believe Hambly, when I had a chance to speak with her a few years ago, mentioned that she'd like to write a sequel to that book, but other commitments have kept the project on a back burner. (Probably more accurate to say in the cupboard.) Damn!

And I'd just like to mention, Jo, that I've highly enjoyed your series of posts reminding people of good books from previous years. It's my favorite feature of
Bruce Cohen
17. SpeakerToManagers
Yes, Bride of the Rat God! I intended to mention it, then got sidetracked. Add my 2 cents to the pile praising it as one of the funniest books I've read in a long while.
Sam Kelly
18. Eithin
Sorcerer's Ward (I'd never heard the US title before) is my favourite of her work, even (narrowly) over Dragonsbane. All the charming little practicalities, a hero who doesn't have it all her way but who never makes you put down the book and rest your head in your hands to call her an idiot...

Incidentally, Kyra also shows up in Dog Wizard, the third Windrose book (written two years before this one).
Tara Chang
19. tlchang
David_Goldfarb@6 - I *was* unaware of a third one! I have looked a number of times and have never seen another listed, so Thank You! (logging onto even as I type!)
Paul Abbamondi
20. pabba
I liked it, and I liked it even more that I bought it in the used book section of my college library for 50 cents. It had a very Victorian feel, especially involving the family of Kyra's sister's betrothed. Been awhile since I read it though, but I do recall it being quick and fun all the way through...
21. Drew Shiel
Sorcerer's Ward is one of my favourite books of all time, and comes in for serious rereads, such that my second copy is now looking very battered.

Hambly's worldbuilding has been a wonder and an inspiration to me from very early days, and there are elements in a lot of my game worlds that are directly or indirectly influenced by her.
22. bronxbee
i'm a big fan of Hambly's works -- especially some of her earlier titles. but i especially liked Stranger at the Wedding...
Rachel McGonagill
23. RachelMcG
I have not read Stranger at the Wedding, but was able to find it just now, in the Husband's and my combined library; we've been married 7 years, and I haven't even read all of my books yet.

Thanks to your review, I shall partake of this one soonly! I love a good bit of worldbuilding.
24. John N.
Add me to those who read and liked Stranger at the Wedding (got it when it came out). While I enjoy most of Hambly's writing, this is one of those that's good for casual rereading, so it (along with Bride of the Rat God) is probably the most-reread of her books for me...
25. Ronit
Yes, I love this book. The froth conceals a darker backstory, and Hambly's characters, as always, go far beyond the 3 dimensional.
26. Wiredwizard
I just count it as Book 4 of the Windrose Chronicles & reread all 4 of them on a regular basis, as I do most of Hambly's books. I haven't got all of them... but some day I will - her & Michael Moorcock. =)
Jo Walton
27. bluejo
I was just going to say I don't think of it as book 4, and I thought of something interesting about it.

It's a story that happens in a world an epic fantasy has happened in, without itself being an epic fantasy.

I can't offhand think of any other book of which that is true.
28. Lisa Padol
I've not read it, but it's on my shelf, because every single person I know of who has read it has highly recommended it.

It's trying to duke it out with all the books I brought home from WorldCon.
29. Heike
I remember loving this book. I'd read Hambly and liked before this, but this went above and beyond and was just fantastic.
30. daisyladen
I read Strangers at the Wedding and Dragonsbane about every five years. They are my favorite Hambly books...the rest are good, but these two are satisfying. :)
31. Sue Wallace
I wanted to post about this book - it's one of my Hambly favorites. I like the romance - Kyra and Spence are two of my favorite characters, and their love match is so unexpected to both of them; it's a delight to read. But there are so many little touches -- how incredibly practical her little sister is, and how much her father loves Kyra. A comedy of manners, but with a profound representation of one of Hambly's most interesting recurring themes - that magic, by its nature, is dangerous because of the changes it makes to a world.
She does it better than anybody.
Although, I would truly love to see a stage adaptation of the dinner scene in Dragonsbane, which is a truly great book about love and marriage

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