1984. Not a great year for global politics. In the U.K., a year-long miners’ strike began and the IRA attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher; in India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was successfully assassinated, while in Ethiopia, famine was responsible for the death of approximately one million people and the displacement of even more. On the upside, cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman to perform a space walk, David Brin won the best novel Hugo, and Hollywood gave the world Conan the Destroyer.
And Del Rey brought the opening volume of Barbara Hambly’s Sun Wolf and Starhawk series to discerning bookshelves everywhere.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn and the succeeding volumes, The Witches of Wenshar (1987), and The Dark Hand of Magic (1990) can stand alone rather more successfully than, say, the Darwath series or The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage. Each book tells its own, relatively self-contained story, and that’s just about my favourite type of series.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn’s already been discussed here on Tor.com, so rather than mentioning what Jo Walton’s already recapped (with, I might add, far more skill than I possess), let’s talk about a couple of things that made me practically giddy with happiness while I was reading it:* first, the fact that it’s deeply feminist, and second, the fact that this is definitely a martial artist’s book.
To pursue the latter thought immediately: martial training forms a large part of Sun Wolf’s story in Mandrigyn itself. Me, I’m a bad martial artist. I lack the discipline — and, quite frankly, the ambition — that takes a student past average to good. But I always enjoy stories that treat the hard parts of training with honesty and respect, and the Sun Wolf’s training is all about the hard parts.
The main arc of the story bends around the Wolf, a quote-unquote ‘barbarian’ mercenary kidnapped from his troop and compelled to train the women of the city-state of Mandrigyn to fight the forces of their local really bad news warlord-cum-wizard. But all the other significant personalities in this story are female. Whether that’s Starhawk, the stern, solitary second-in-command of the troop, and Fawn, his concubine, who set out to find and rescue him, or the determined women of Mandrigyn — Sheera, their leader, the gladiator Denga Rey, Amber Eyes, the wizard-woman Yirth — they’re a sheer pleasure to read. It’s still rare to find a book with this many well-developed, diverse female characters — and not only that, but with well-developed female friendships, to boot.
There are two friendships in particular that brought this home to me. The relationship between Starhawk and Fawn is the first: the only thing they really have in common is loyalty to Sun Wolf, but Hambly suggests the development of genuine friendship during their journey.
The second relationship is that between Sheera and Drypettis Dru, friends from girlhood. They’re both noblewomen of Mandrigyn, and the politics of their planned revolt brings its strain to bear on their friendship, especially Sun Wolf’s position and his training. But theirs is a recognisable, believable friendship, of the kind with which few fictional women seem to come equipped.
Female friendship has a much smaller role to play in subsequent books. While there’s no dearth of strong women in The Witches of Wenshar, The Dark Hand of Magic has far fewer. The Ladies of Mandrigyn has an exceptional number of interconnected women, and I have to say, I find that refreshing.
I’m ambivalent about how the relationship between Sun Wolf and Starhawk is handled in The Ladies of Mandrigyn. Starhawk is steadfast beyond reason, this is true, but in a book with so many female characters it’s a little disappointing to find that the emotional arc of the woman with point of view revolves around a man. (As does, for that matter, Sheera’s — at least to a degree.) I’m probably unreasonably peevish about that, since I’m reading nigh to two decades later and may have been over-sensitised to Narrative Subordination of Women.**
The Witches of Wenshar (1987) does much to even the scales between Sun Wolf and Starhawk. This volume takes place in the kingdom of Wenshar. The city of Pardle Sho lies on the edge of the K’Chin Desert. Starhawk and the Wolf are there to seek someone who can help the Wolf learn more about his magic, but their stay is complicated by magical murders, demons, the politics of the royal household, and the king’s daughter’s betrothal to a lord of the shirdar, the people of the desert, who once possessed the kingdom of Wenshar themselves. There’s a deserted, haunted city in the dunes; the remnants of really old, really bad magic; politics and infatuations, betrayals and desperate confrontations.
The word I keep falling back on to describe Hambly’s books is atmospheric. I’ve said it about The Time of the Dark, and it’s no less true for Dragonsbane, or Those Who Hunt The Night. It’s very true here. The dead city of Wenshar is intensely creepy, and the demons who dwell there disturbing in the extreme, as is the revelation of who, precisely, is responsible for the murders — for which Sun Wolf had got himself blamed.
The Dark Hand of Magic (1990) is a book I don’t like very much. I admire it immensely: viewed on technical grounds, it’s a good, solid, well-written (and yes, atmospheric) book. Sun Wolf and Starhawk return to the Wolf’s old mercenary troop, who have been beset by the worst luck imaginable while besieging a city as part of forces hired by the financial powerhouse of Kwest Mralwe. A wizard’s work, the troop thinks, and the Wolf, though hardly trained, is the only wizard they know who might be able to help.
Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong. To describe all the many ways in which things go wrong for our heroes in and around the siege — and later the troop’s trek back to winter quarters — would doubtless strain both your patience and my ability to refrain from too many spoilers, but there’s no way around it. It’s not a very uplifting book.
It’s a book about siege, and sack, and a long slog north homeward through mud; about the breakdown of discipline in a mercenary troop, a wizard looking for a power base, and people being people. The characters are understandable, sympathetic, occasionally vile, and frequently do or suffer quite terrible things, and while the general atmospheric of bleakness is believable — even logical — after a while the cumulative grimness gets a little hard to bear.
Despite all that, The Dark Hand of Magic ends on an optimistic note, one that makes me regret the fact that it’s the last published adventure of Sun Wolf and Starhawk. They’re fascinating characters who occupy an interesting world. They would fit well, I think, in today’s fantasy subgenre of Dark and Gritty: for although the Sun Wolf and Starhawk books lack the hypermasculinity so often characteristic of that particular subgenre, they are, it must be said, extremely good.
*Apart from the fact that it’s a brilliant book, and I wish for a paper-and-ink copy of my very own to thumb through. Ebooks are all very well and good, and there’s an awful lot to be said for availability, but sometimes a body wants the smell of paper to make a book feel real.
**You will probably agree that it’s a little contradictory of me to both praise the book’s feminism and gripe about its feminism not going far enough. Fair enough. It is contradictory, but I think I’m allowed to entertain two contradictory thoughts at the same time.
When not spending her spare time attempting — usually without success — to invent more interesting things to say in her bio, Liz Bourke is reading books.