Even in these trying times, when it seems every day brings another depressing news item that highlights the hurtful divisions in our society, I can still take comfort in good books. It can’t fail to make me happy when I discover new favorite authors or series, or when old favorites remind me why they’re favorites. In the last months I’ve read one of each kind that stands out. (Warning: Spoilers likely.)
Age of Swords (Michael J. Sullivan)
This is one of my new favorite series, not because it has especially breathtaking prose or complex world-building, but because it’s packed full of so many of the things I hope to find in epic fantasy. I praised the previous book in the series, Age of Myth, in another post a few months back, for its sympathetic depictions of female authority and its portrayal of friendship between women. That book must be read first, but the sequel takes these already pleasing elements and turns them up to eleven. Persephone, the woman whom we saw rise to the position of chieftain in the last book, grows and evolves as a leader, making mistakes but learning from them and ultimately triumphing. Suri, the young mage, discovers her capabilities with guidance from her Fhrey mentor Arion (another active and interesting female character), and in the end pulls off some impressive day-saving moves. Also, Moya the archer, Brin the historian, and Roan the engineer, noteworthy but fairly minor characters in the last book, become major players in this one. Roan even gets to invent the wheel!
While I love that the ladies dominate the scene, some of the chapters I found most intriguing were told from the perspective of the villain, the Fhrey prince Manawydule, who is desperate to avenge himself on the human race after the death of his mentor in the last book. Through him, Sullivan paints a portrait of radicalization, as he falls in with a group who plan to overthrow the current Fhrey power structure and replace it with a new order in which their race will dominate and all others be brought under subjection. At a time when hate groups are dominating the news more than they have in decades, this story should be told.
A solid four stars.
Time of the Dark (Barbara Hambly)
Hambly has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read The Ladies of Mandrigyn some years back. Time of the Dark, the first of Hambly’s “Darwath” series, has a lot of what I’ve come to expect from her work: strong, involving prose, good conflict, and a brave and capable woman at or near its center. Yet my response to this book ended up being a little more complicated than my love for Ladies and its sequels, Stranger at the Wedding, and Bride of the Rat God.
I’ve always found Hambly to be a feminist-friendly writer, and while I wouldn’t call this exactly an exception, I couldn’t help noticing a more conservative streak in this novel that I hadn’t observed in the other Hambly books. First is the use of a highly old-school trope, the male Chosen One. In this portal fantasy, a young man, Rudy, and woman, Gil, from modern-day California are pulled into the fantasy realm of Darwath because they’re meant to save it, and they must figure out this strange new place and their responsibilities in it. Their learning curve is fascinating, to be sure, but in the end, even though Gil is introduced first, Rudy turns out to be the important one, the heir to the wizard Ingold’s magic and the key world-saver. In the very last pages, poor Gil is left to wonder just why the heck she’s there. The good news (I hope): this is only the first book in the series, so maybe we’ll see Gil discover her purpose in the later volumes.
More problematic, for me, is the contrast set up between Gil, the scholar-turned-warrior, and Alde, the Madonna-like widowed queen with whom Rudy falls in love. If Gil represents the way forward in SFF heroines, a precursor to Hambly’s own Starhawk, Alde comes to us straight from the old school, a woman whose importance rests on being the widow of the last King and the mother of the future one, with little power or skill of her own. It’s to Hambly’s credit that she is able to endow her with a personality, a dash of courage and even a touch of humor. The trouble with Alde is that she’s living proof of the persistence of traditional gender roles in a society where women can fight in the Guard and even hold leadership positions in the church (though the only example we see of the latter is 100% pure evil, so that’s not much of a positive). Women are tougher than men, Alde tells Rudy; “we have to be, to take care of children.” So even if other roles are open, the main business of women’s lives is still, or should be, children. Also, while Alde is written as warm and sweet, almost an ideal, Gil, supposedly our heroine, is presented as deficient, lacking some vital internal component, describing herself as “the woman who doesn’t love” — as if the truly good women are the motherly ones, while those who follow other paths have questionable priorities.
Yet as I mentioned before, this is only the beginning of a series. A lot can happen in two more books.
A slightly disappointed 3.5 stars.