The Rainbow Abyss
There are many good reasons for reading a book by an author you have not read before. One reason that I use is that the writer is an upcoming guest at a New Zealand convention. The number of Joe Haldeman and Terry Pratchet novels I now possess is a good indicator of the success of this approach to finding worthwhile reading material. Barbara Hambly is to be Guest of Honour at the national convention to be held in Dunedin in 1994, so the time has come to check out her writing skills. These two books comprise two very different halves of a single fantasy story.
The first book has a very familiar feel to it - a medieval level, magic using (swords and sorcery) world where a young apprentice magician and his wise old master embark on a mission to find a gateway between worlds. And of course the young magician finds time to fall in love with a beautiful princess along the way. Yes there are a lot of standard fantasy cliches here, but importantly there are those that are clearly not followed. Of most significance is the character of the young magician - the main character in the book. Just for a change, the character is not a naive young boy but a world wise young man who is not a great magician nor the subject of some ancient prophecy. What is more, this character is drawn with a gritty realism - refreshing after the rather superficial types populating most fantasy novels.
The realistic nature of this character and others is the greatest strength of these two books. This is particularly true of the first where the environment and the storyline are unspectacular. The setting of the second part of this story is paradoxically less familiar that the medieval magic world of the first part. In the second book, the hero of the first is taken to second world war Germany where he is held by a special branch of the SS devoted to using magic to help the Third Reich win the war. Given Hitler's known interest in spirituality, this scenario is not a improbable as it may at first appear. In fact the setting is made very believable - Hambly has done a thorough research job - I was not able to fault her on any period detail. Ultimately though the Nazis are just like any other fantasy villains as the inevitable conflict between good and evil comes to pass.
Reading these books gives me the feeling that Barbara Hambly has slightly missed the point of fantasy writing. These books are too well written with too much attention to detail to be grist to the mill of your average, escape seeking, fantasy reader - even though the basic themes are familiar. Once you get past the slightly uneasy feeling this generates, these books are definitely worth a read. One final word of caution - this author writes books with cliffhanger endings. Do not start a series unless you have all the books in it available to you! Failure to heed this warning will lead to frustration and anger.
Overall rating: A string of cubic zircons held together by a fine gold chain.