Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: January 31 to February 13, 2017
Recommended by: buddy read with Beth

Recommended to:

3.5 stars, though not sure if I should round up for the subversive narrative and character-driven writing style because I feel like I should judge this book by the standards of the time period in which it was written–the 80s–and not judge it by what I normally like/prefer in high fantasy–books written much later in the 90s and beyond.

Even though it’s called Dragonsbane and the Dragonsbane is a knight named John Aversin, the whole story is told from the perspective of his mageborn partner, Jenny. It’s through her that we see and come to understand this Medieval Scotland inspired world, the magic within it, and the dragons. And it’s through her that we see the hardship of the mageborn and we see who holds the true power, in this story and in this world.

As for John, he’s not only a knight, but a country knight and a pig farmer too, which comes much to the surprise of Gareth the crown prince when he comes seeking the Dragonsbane to slay the dragon. John is not at all what he expected, and all the hopes and dreams he had of the Dragonsbane as a noble knight in shiny armor are shattered upon their first meeting. It’s quite funny. I laughed all the way through that first scene of them together, and afterward every time John speaks, there’s cause for snickering.

John and Jenny have been together for awhile; they have two sons and have slain a dragon together. All in all, they’ve been through a lot together, and there’s a sense of ease, strength, and security in their relationship, the kind that can withhold all kinds of storm together. You don’t often see this kind of lasting bond in genre fiction, and it’s yet another thing that sets it apart from other of its kind.

Although neither John nor Jenny is what we expect of a knight and mage, Gareth the crown prince is exactly what we expect of a sheltered, inexperienced, starry-eyed young prince. At least in the beginning of the story, he’s like that. After meeting John and Jenny, he comes face to face with the reality of his dragon problem and grows up quickly. And then he accompanies them on their quest to slay the dragon and grows up some more, so that by the end of the quest there isn’t that much of that starry-eyed young prince left in him, for which I was grateful because that guy was annoying, especially when looked at from Jenny’s perspective.

The only weak link in this story that I could find is the man-eater antagonist Zyerne. She’s a bit too muahahahaha for my taste. I prefer villains to be subtle and to withhold information instead of flaunting it. Unfortunately, Zyerne is definitely in the flaunt-it camp. There’s not much depth or complexity to her, and I wished there had been more, more layers or more sides or more personality. Something to give her more purpose than just being the force of darkness out to get our heroes.

I liked this book a lot more upon first finishing it than I do now. But now? Now that I’ve some time to process the story as a whole, my interest and enjoyment of it is waning. I think it’s the combination of the slow pace–it took over half the book for me to get into the story and characters–and Zyerne’s shallow characterization that kept me from being fully engaged. But since this is the first book of the series, I understand the necessity of the slow pace and gradual world building effort Barbara Hambly had put in to lay the groundwork for the rest of the series.

One of my favorite scene is Gareth meeting John for the first time and realizing he’s the Dragonsbane:

Still Gareth had not spoken. Aversin, interpreting his silence and the look on his face with his usual fiendish accuracy, said, “I’d show you my dragon-slaying scars to prove it, but they’re placed where I can’t exhibit ’em in public.”

It said worlds for Gareth’s courtly breeding–and, Jenny supposed, the peculiar stoicism of courtiers–that, even laboring under the shock of his life and the pain of a wounded arm, he swept into a very creditable salaam of greeting. When he straightened up again, he adjusted the set of his cloak with a kind of sorry hauteur, pushed his bent spectacles a little more firmly up onto the bridge of his nose, and said in a voice that was shake but oddly determined, “My lord Dragonsbane, I have ridden here on errantry from the south, with a message for you from the King, Uriens of Belmarie.” He seemed to gather strength from these words, settling into the heraldic sonority of his ballad-snatch of golden swords and bright plumes in spite of the smell of the pigsty and the thin, cold rain that had begun to patter down.

“My lord Aversin, I have been sent to bring you south. A dragon has come and laid waste the city of the gnomes in the Deep of Ylferdun; it lairs there now, fifteen miles from the King’s city of Bel. The Kind begs that you come to slay it ere the whole countryside is destroyed.”

The boy drew himself up, having delivered himself of his quest, a look of noble martyred serenity on his face, very like, Jenny thought, someone out a ballad himself. Then, like all good messengers in ballads, he collapsed and slid to the soupy mud and cowpies in a dead faint.

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