Jan 26 2011 11:26am

Don’t mess with magic: Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn

The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara HamblyThe thing Barbara Hambly always does brilliantly is the way technology and economics and magic fit into cultures. It’s why I want her to write fantasy—I like her historical mysteries just fine, but they are set in the real world, and what I want from her more than anything else is the fantasy worldbuilding, because she does it just so well and so satisfyingly that it always makes me happy.

The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984) is an early novel and the first of hers I read. It has a fascinating world. It’s a lot like Renaissance Italy, with warring city states and mercenary bands, except instead of being near to the Ottoman Empire, they’re near an evil wizard’s empire. And the evil wizard, Altiokis, is gobbling up city states one by one, and a woman from the most recently conquered one to fall, Mandrigyn, wants to hire mercenaries to get it free again. Sun Wolf, a barbarian from the northlands, is far too sensible to take an assignment like that. So he winds up taking a much worse one—kidnapped, poisoned, and training the ladies of Mandrigyn to fight against the wizard. (It has to be the ladies, because the men are either collaborators, dead, or slaves in the mines.)

Hambly wrote about writing it in her Livejournal recently, and about her own experience of learning to fight. This is a lot of what the book is about, the women learning to fight while Sun Wolf’s second in command, Starhawk, travels across country towards Mandrigyn, and Altiokis. But what draws me back to it is the way the economy works, the traders are actually trading, the mercenaries have to argue with their employers about being paid in devalued currency, the women in Mandrigyn have to take over the jobs because the men are missing.

More than that, there’s the magic. You see, Altiokis isn’t just an evil wizard. He’s a special kind of evil wizard, and for the last couple of hundred years he’s been wiping out all the other wizards he can find and destroying any books about magic, so that there’s pretty much no magical opposition to him. There are untrained mageborn people, who would have power if they knew what to do with it, and there’s the occasional person who has read some books and does a little magic in secret, but they still can’t do much because they don’t know what the Great Trial is, and they need the Great Trial to unlock their power.

The two things Sun Wolf’s father told him were “don’t mess with magic” and “don’t fall in love.” Naturally, the novel sees him doing both.

There are a lot of coincidences in The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and while the description of training is very accurate, there might be a little much of it. But she has thought through all the consequences of having mindless zombies in your army, and this was one of the first fantasies that really isn’t set in a generic fantasyland. It’s set in something that has borrowed from European history, but she’s thought hard about how the existence of magic makes it different, at tech level. There are some memorable characters, and a sweet romance.

This book has a very good and conclusive ending, and it stands completely alone. There are two sequels, which can be summed up as “Sun Wolf and Starhawk wander around trying to find someone who knows magic,” which is okay but a little unfocused. The economics and technology and magic continue to make sense, and this continues to be cool. This is one of the books that gave me hope for fantasy when I was about ready to give up on it.

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.

T S Davis
1. tee+D
I appreciate hearing about older books - this sounds like something fun to dig out from a library or used book store and down in one sitting on a rainy Sunday. Excellent.
2. PhoenixFalls
I love, love, LOVE this book. In addition to all the world-building stuff you talked about my favorite part is that it's so full of women. . . so much sword-and-sorcery either has an all male cast or has one lone woman amongst a bunch of men, but here we get Sun Wolf as the lone representative of his gender in one half of the storyline and in the other half Starhawk is forced to deal with a female traveling companion. . . and all of the female characters are distinct individuals.

It was so NICE to find a fantasy novel that was pure fun, that I didn't have to think hard about and get philosophical over, that so easily passed the beschdel test, y'know? ;)

(It rewards thinking hard too; the world-building is very smooth, and I loved the way Starhawk is forced to confront the ramifications of her chosen line of work. But you can spend a perfectly enjoyable afternoon completely ignoring all of that stuff and just watching the action.)
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
PhoenixFalls: You're right! Not just one woman but full of women. And I very much like the whole dynamic with Fawn.

People don't seem to talk about Hambly much as a feminist writer, but she absolutely is.
4. 12stargazers
I loved this book and now I'll have to dig it out and re-read it.

The wandering of the subsequent two books didn't bother me as much because so much went into setting up the fact that the master/apprentice tradition in the magic business was so throughly disrupted. The local economies and customs that Starhawk and Sunwolf experienced and how they impacted magic and how a return of magic impacted them was fascinating. I loved the fact that it was sword and sorcery where the sword was an afterthought.

I, too, loved the world building and the realistic interpersonal and social interactions. Looking back, "The Ladies of Madrigyn" is a lot like "Rosie the Riveter" of fantasy. (WWII women who took over the factory work for the men enlisting to go fight the war.) The returing GI's had reactions that weren't too different from the men Madrigyn.
Christopher Turkel
5. Applekey
I liked this book. The otbers that followed it less so. I still urge people to read it if they can find a copy.
Liza .
6. aedifica
I'm so close to reading this that I took it with me on my last two trips. Maybe your post will be what tips me over into actually reading it!
7. Nephtis
To echo PhoenixFalls, I love love LOVE this book. I gasped in surprise and pleasure to see it mentioned here. There's something immensely appealing and re-readable about it. It remains one of my top favorites even as my reading tastes "grow up."
8. Nephtis
To add: it is definitely a feminist work, but carefully handled, not heavy-handed or unrealistic, or the least bit preachy. It just is. The women learn to fight out of necessity - to rescue their men - and there are consequences to their actions.
9. hobbitbabe
The binding is about to break on my copy, which is probably a sign I should start looking for another one. This is my favourite out of all the Barbara Hambly books I've read (which isn't all of them, yet). Every single time the ending breaks my heart, and I try to think of a happier ending that would have been true, and I always conclude that the ending was exactly right and completely necessary.
Tony Zbaraschuk
10. tonyz
The other thing Hambly does extremely well is understand the nature of evil, and that it's a temptation from within rather than only an evil force from without. (Yes, the Evil Wizard Emperor is a classic bad guy -- but it all makes sense in context.)

Things like Starhawk's reflections on the mercenary life, for instance, or Sun Wolf's debate with the Wizard King's general about what to do with Altiokis' power source, are incredibly well-done.

And this is one of her best.
11. elsiekate
oh, i love this book and haven't read it in years, but now i need to reread it--i'm so glad to be reminded of it!
12. Diana Moher
Barbara Hambly has always been a favorite writer of mine. I concur with the reviewer that she has a knack for melding various "genre" type tropes in her fiction providing us with a world that could be. I too will be pulling out my tattered copy for a re-read,
Claire de Trafford
13. Booksnhorses
I'm going to add to the love in here. The Darwath books are my favourites of Hambly I think but this is a great book, one of the first I remember reading when I was young with good, realistic and useful female characters. I must confess that I haven't tried her historical fiction (I'm just not that interested in that period or country) and I wish she would write some more fantasy. There's some online stuff that I keep meaning to subscribe too. I shall add this to my re-read after Aubrey/Maturin.
Wesley Parish
14. Aladdin_Sane
So far the only two books of hers that I've had the pleasure of reading have been Walls of Air and Icefalcon's Quest, both of which blew me away.

I did recognize the inspiration for the Dark, though - it's the first time I've seen Alien used in that way, as a source for inspiration, by a fantasy author.

Any likeliehood that the Darwath Trilogy and other books will be reprinted? I'd take the lot - she's that good.
15. Dasein
Barbara Hambly has a recent (January 3, 2011) post on her blog ( about this book. She describes the genesis of the book, and also says "The Ladies of Mandrigyn, like The Walls of Air, is principally about training."
16. Erick Graubard
This is a great overview of the book, but I have to ask, do you find that the book may have some hidden influences of feminism with it in? I ask because most of the time the men are the warriors, while maybe one or two women in the storyline may train to become warriors themselves. Yet for the most part, a woman's role in a storyline is one of sacrifice, that she will fling herself on a blade in a pivotal moment of battle, thus distracting the enemy so that the hero or heros can be victorious in their campaign. I have not read this book, and by what you have written, you make it seem that there are legions of women training to become fighters, and I applaud this effort. More and more should authors write about women become fighters and not picture them as the damsel in distress that is mostly seen.

On a more personal note, I am a fan of training sequences; my favorite part of a book or movie is seeing how the characters become adept at using thier weapons and learning the skill they used, but more often than not those sequences are cut short in order to make time for the rest of the story. It is deemed important enough to show a snippet, a taste, of how they were trained but not enough to go into details. You complain that the training may be overlong, but to me it sounds like a fun part of the story.

This was a excellent post and I find myself curious about this novel, so much so that I may go to a bookstore and dig it up one day.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Erick: If the training is your favourite part, you're going to love this book. And yes, it has women who have always been warriors, and women who had stayed at home or had other jobs before the invasion training to be warriors.

Dasein: I did link to that post!

Aladdin_Sane: She mentioned on her LJ on December 15th that Open Road, a new eBook company, are going to be doing all of the old Del Rey fantasies except Dragonsbane starting in the spring. So if you like eBooks, they'll be available soon.

TonyZ: You're absolutely right, well obserbed.
Clifton Royston
18. CliftonR
I love love love this book. It's one of the ones I return to and reread over and over. The others rarely, this one often.

Sun Wolf is a wonderfully drawn character, between being keenly intelligent - enough so to play the barbarian when it's to his advantage - and stubborn to the point of insanity. (If he weren't so stubborn he was prepared to die rather than put up with stupidity, things would not have worked out so well...) Starhawk is an equally amazing character in her own way.
Madeline Ferwerda
19. MadelineF
I adore this book. So brilliant. Others have mentioned many of the things I adore already... To add to the real economy/worldbuilding bit, I found it fantastic that at one point Starhawk and Fawn take a room at an inn and then sleep in their travelling bedrolls anyway to avoid the lice in the bed. Of course! I thought.

The source of the zombie things is just horrible in a fascinating way.

The careful small revelations of character, like how one old friend recognizes another by the artistry of a rock formation he sets up...

The way she conveys that actual work goes in to getting stronger and better. Hard to do! She does it!

Just so much brilliance. The orange trees put inside in the winter to keep them alive!

Story also great.
20. Tehanu
I must confess that I haven't tried her historical fiction (I'm just not that interested in that period or country)

Then you're missing some great books. I personally find it very painful to read about slavery in the Old South but for Hambly, I suck it up and read and I'm never sorry. Ditto her books on the Revolutionary War period (under pseud. "Barbara Hamilton") -- and her book Homeland is the best novel I have ever read about the Civil War, bar none. I love all her sf and fantasy too, and the historicals aren't even my favorites, but they are well worth your while.
Claire de Trafford
21. Booksnhorses
Hi Tehanu,

Coincidentally I found one of the Benjamin January books in the library yesterday (out of sequence obviously but there you go) and snapped it up, so I'm going to give it a try :)
Nancy Lebovitz
22. NancyLebovitz
I obviously need to reread it. I remember liking the book, but the only specific detail that stuck was that the women fought when they had to, but most of them didn't like fighting and went back to being safe and comfortable as soon as they could. This seemed very reasonable.
Liza .
23. aedifica
I did finally read it this past weekend, and then came back to re-read your review. It was odd--looking back I can see that it does have all the good stuff mentioned here (thoughtful integration of magic into the worldbuilding, strong female characters, etc) but I didn't really notice or enjoy them much while I was reading, because I was too annoyed by some of the other things in the book. Sun Wolf's attitude toward women in the beginning of the book was irritating, though he mellowed a little during the course of the story, and I was also really irritated at Hambly's apparent acceptance of the old idea that one's morals are reflected in one's external appearance: the evil governor had to be crippled, the evil wizard had to be fat, the townsmen who were too injured or disabled to fight were lumped in with the cowards and traitors as though morally they were all the same, etc.

The story was fun enough that I did read it through to the end, but it's going on my giveaway pile now, not back onto the shelf, because those annoyances make it not worth re-reading.

I did enjoy the twist with the poison, and also (mild spoiler coming up) that she didn't rely on Starhawk's chance-found knowledge to carry the identity of the Trial to the other characters but had them discover it independently. (I think it would have ended up feeling really contrived if she'd tried to have Starhawk pass it on: "Hi, my lost companion! By the way, while we were separated I learned about this magical Trial and how it's done." "How useful! I know a wizard who needs to undergo the Trial!" etc.)

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