“You don’t happen to have a hacksaw about you, do you, my dear?” Barbara Hambly’s Windrose Chronicles

Are you feeling old today? How about young? The Silent Tower was published in 1986, which makes it just about as old as I am. It opened a new series for Barbara Hambly, the “Windrose Chronicles,” which would go on to consist of The Silent Tower‘s direct sequel, The Silicon Mage (1988); and Dog Wizard (1993), which has many of the same characters but a different villain and a different focus. Stranger at the Wedding (1994; UK title Sorcerer’s Ward), though set in the same universe, is essentially a standalone novel with completely different characters, and I won’t be talking about it here today.

So, 1986. That would the United Nations’ so-called “International Year of Peace.” The year of Metallica’s Master of Puppets album and the Challenger disaster. In April, the U.S. carried out air raids in Libya in retaliation for the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin, while in November the Iran-Contra affair started to break. Ender’s Game won the Hugo for Best Novel and Labyrinth and Highlander hit cinema screens; a computer with 20Mb of hard disk drive space was top of the line, and the internet didn’t really exist yet.

This last point is relevant because The Silent Tower features Joanna Sheraton, a computer programmer at the San Serano Aerospace Complex, in addition to the young swordsman Caris, the mad wizard Antryg Windrose, and a dark and terrible threat made possible by the combination of magic and IT.

It’s another portal fantasy. This time it’s a portal fantasy which opens with point-of-view characters on both sides of the multiverse divide: in California, Joanna Sheraton, who feels that there’s something bizarrely wrong in her workspace late at night; and in the other world, Caris, who witnesses a murderer come through the Void between universes. Joanna’s part of the story opens slowly by contrast with Caris’s, but soon both of them are entangled with the wizard Antryg, who is allegedly both mad and dangerous and quite possibly responsible not only for the disappearance of Caris’s grandfather, but also for Joanna’s abduction from Earth. Circumstances may force them to work together, but over everything they do hangs the threat of mutual betrayal, and the spectre of Antryg’s former master—Suraklin, the Dark Mage.

I don’t really like The Silent Tower. Of all Hambly’s books—at least, those that I’ve read so far—it’s the one I like least. I’m not sure whether I feel this way because neither Joanna nor Caris strike me with any outstanding sympathy, whether it’s because I just want to read about Antryg—who, for all his protestations of madness, strikes me as a supremely well-adjusted sort of bloke for a man with his life—or whether it’s because the melding of technology and magic hasn’t aged particularly well.

Possibly it’s because The Silent Tower, for all its many wonderful turns of phrase and the interesting economics of its world-building—Joanna travels to a world with early modern technology, where wizards are forbidden by law from interfering in human affairs and both the Council of Wizards and the Church wait to enforce the penalties (the Church with Inquisitorial cruelty)—is a little aimless: I have very little sense of the direction and arc of the story, despite having read it twice.

And I really don’t like all the personal betrayals. Especially the final one.

From my point of view, The Silicon Mage is a lot better. Both Joanna and Caris have grown as characters, and have more interesting goals. During the course of the book, they even grow some more. There’s an actual, visible antagonist! There’s more Antryg! There’s female friendship, in which The Silent Tower was sadly lacking, and a fascinating encounter in a temple with a transdimensional being who believes he is the Dead God.

The setup and final confrontation rely a little too much on the melding of magic and technology: 1980s computer technology, over fifteen years on, is a sadly jarring relic to someone who’s never even seen a 5½ inch floppy. But The Silicon Mage is a worthy book, and just about makes up for my dislike of The Silent Tower: between the pair, they make a self-contained story.

Dog Wizard, though it rather relies on knowledge of the events of the first two, is better than either. At least, I like it significantly more.

Some time after the conclusion of The Silicon Mage, Antryg is living in exile with Joanna in Los Angeles. When she is kidnapped from her apartment by a stranger wearing the robes of a mage, Antryg permits himself to be drawn back home, into the affairs of the Council of Wizards, where he is under sentence of death.

Once in the wizards’ Citadel, though, it seems that none of the wizards of the Council know what has become of Joanna. They want Antryg for more than to execute his delayed sentence: the Citadel is having a spot of bother, and with mysterious Gates opening in the Void between worlds, they can’t afford to kill Antryg out of hand. He’s the only wizard alive who really understands the Void, and the Council members are convinced that he must be the cause of their afflictions—or the only person who can solve the problem. Possibly both.

Dog Wizard is a fascinating book. Antryg must negotiate the politics of the Council, discover why the Gates are opening—and find a way to stop them—and find Joanna before everything goes to hell in a handbasket. The Citadel, particularly its Vaults, is atmospherically described, and the personalities of the Council are well-rounded and human. And the Dead God reappears, which made me very happy. I quite like the Dead God.

And Dog Wizard has a sense of humour, which is something that The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage rather lacked. Caris and Joanna are very serious, even earnest, protagonists, but as a character, Antryg has a crooked sense of the world’s ridiculousness even at the most nail-biting moments.  He reminds me of Miles Vorkosigan, a little. Despite pronounced differences, both of them get their way as much by talking rings around everybody else as by anything else.

It’s a tense and pacey book, and all in all, really well done. And the conclusion is something I never saw coming.

In the final sum, my mild dislike of The Silent Tower and less-than-enthusiastic enjoyment of The Silicon Mage can’t detract in any way from the fact that I downright love Dog Wizard. So I’m rather glad I read all three, and delighted that the existence of ebooks made it possible for me to do so.

Liz Bourke is reading for a postgraduate degree in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. In her spare time, she enjoys tea, reading, falling off walls, and the occasional martial art.


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