Sep 13 2011 3:54pm

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.


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.


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.

1. desertpaladin
"the way you might fruge a rat"

I'm not familiar with this practice. What the heck does fruge mean?

Either way it sounds unpleasant.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
It just means slaughter, but it's a term used about pests and wizards, not people who count as actual people. It's just an example of how the wizards really don't even count as human in that culture.
3. RandolphF
I think that's the point, Jo. It's a very small, too small I suppose, response to the horrors of modernity, a very small gloss on the scope and depth of the insanity that sweeps our world.

...but I also think I'd better reread the books & see if I still believe that, afterwards.
Claire de Trafford
4. Booksnhorses
I love Hambly but this series is the one I don't own and haven't re-read. I read it when I was a teenager and just couldn't get into it and I've never felt the urge to revisit it.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Randolph: You astonish me. "The horrors of modernity"? "The insanity that sweeps our world"? Like it's all the same thing, like the modern world is all Nazi Germany? I can't believe you mean that! I'm absolutely gobsmacked that you'd say it.

Nor do I believe that Hambly intended to trivialise the Holocaust or to break the reader's suspension of disbelief as a response to... well, anything. She has written many fine books, she's too good a writer to do something like that. If you look at the sensitive way she handles race in the January books, if you look at the genuinely hard choices she gives her characters -- no way would she have written something intentionally hurtful, or something to say "ha ha, made you care". She's not that shallow.

You may legitimately disagree with me and think The Magicians of Night worked, but that would be a really different thing from what you said. If it worked, it would have worked like Briar Rose or The Red Magician to use the magic and the other world let us see the horror of that specific historical situation (not "modernity" or "our world", sheesh, I'm still appalled you said that) from a new angle.
6. etv13
I think I read The Rainbow Abyss in close enough proximity to Lammas Night that I had a strong suspicion as to what (and when) that other world was. I remember thinking, "Oh no, guys, don't go there."

I've found that I often like the first book or two (or three) in a Hambly series, and then it gets too grim for me. I liked Dragonsbane and its immediate sequel, but found the third one very hard going. I liked The Ladies of Mandrigyn and The Witches of Wenshar, but again, The Dark Hand of Magic was too dark for me. I loved the first three Rudy/Gil/Ingold books, but Icefalcon's Quest not so much. So maybe I should be glad there isn't a sequel to Bride of the Rat God -- which is definitely my favorite Hambly. If there ever were a sequel, though, I'd certainly take my chances.
Peter Stone
7. Peter1742
6: etv13. I really want to read Curse of the Swamp Monster, too. I hope Hambly eventually gets around to writing it.
8. Tehanu
Well ... no accounting for taste, I guess. The Magicians of Night is one of my very favorite of Hambly's books, whereas I can hardly stand to re-read The Rainbow Abyss; it always seemed like the back story even though I read it first, and I almost always skip the chapters in Magicians that tell us what's going on in Rhion's world while he's stuck here. I don't think it trivializes the Holocaust to tell a story affected by it; the descriptions of what happens to the gypsy children and some of the other characters aren't there just to give you a chill, they make you realize that every single individual's life and death have meaning and that that is why the Nazis were so evil. Hambly put faces on the victims and made them real to me, and I think that was worth doing.

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