the Little Red Reviewer

Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly

Posted on: December 17, 2014

dragonsbane coverDragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly

published 1985

where I got it: paperbackswap

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Raised on the glorious and romantic epics of old, Gareth knows all the songs and heroic tales. He can tell you verse by verse exactly how the hero slayed the monster with one swing of his gleaming sword. And it must be true, because that is how the story goes. On the words of ballads, Gareth travels north to find John Aversin, the Dragonsbane.  The most honorable man in the kingdom, John slayed a dragon and asked no reward in return. Out of love for King and kingdom, he put his life at risk and returned victorious.

 

All the stories Gareth learned were wrong.

 

To Gareth’s court trained eyes, all he sees in John Aversin is a northern barbarian who is more interested in animal husbandry than slaying dragons. Sickened by the thought that John’s mistress Jenny Waynest is a magewitch, Gareth can barely look her in the eye. John lives his life by living his life – a passionate but untrained naturalist, he fills his libraries with what books can be found, learns from the local farmers, and is more sad that the dragon he slayed decomposed before he could study it than proud that he killed it.  John sees the journey south as a bargaining opportunity. If he saves the capitol from a dragon, the King will have no choice but to send troops and support north to help rebuild the crumbling northern territories, right?

 

As Gareth, John and Jenny journey south, it becomes pretty obvious Gareth isn’t telling them the whole truth. Some of it you’ll guess, and some comes out pretty soon, but there are nasty surprises awaiting them once they reach the King’s court.

 

But that isn’t what this book is about.

 

Let me tell you all about Jenny Waynest.  Because without her, Dragonsbane would be exactly the bland tropey adventure story that the cover art leads you to think it is.

She started training as a mage at a very young age. But knowledge was scarce, and her teacher taught her all he could.  Her biggest challenge is time. This is a world in which magic requires hours of study, concentration and meditation. It’s a lifestyle, and you give your life over to it. With all those hours of meditation, who has time for romance, or loving children? John knows that every moment he or their sons are with her is a moment they are taking away from her potential.  She knows it too, and the moments add up. If only she didn’t love him and he tenderly love her, if only she didn’t love their sons who light up her life every instant she spends with them. If only she could banish love from her life, she would be able to become the mage she’s always wanted to become. If only she didn’t hoard that which brings her joy in the same way a dragon hoards gold. Jenny is why I devoured this book.

 

When John, Jenny and Gareth reach the castle, they must wait for an appointment with the King. His court is being controlled by his mistress, the beautiful and powerful magewitch Zyerne, who pushes political views in the direction of her choice. There is plenty of politics and scapegoating, and blame laid, and fear tactics, and “political framing” that I swear I saw on some 24 hour news station last week. The headlines might be “dragons at the gate!”, but it’s never just about what’s at your gates, now is it?

 

Powerful, young, beautiful, confident – Zyerne is everything Jenny wishes she was. Everytime Jenny sees Zyerne, she struggles with her life choices. If she’d studied more. If she’d insisted on finding a better teacher. If she hadn’t allowed herself to be courted by John. If she hadn’t had children. So many “if’s”, so many different paths she could have taken. Would the right path have brought her to the place where her magic would have been as strong or stronger than Zyerne’s?

 

What is ambition worth? How much are you willing to pay for what you want?  How much time between a child’s utterance of “I want to be a whatever when I grow up!” to the moment of maturity when they understand what it will cost them?

 

In more than a few ways, I see Jenny as the someone I could have been: (except for the magic. and the no electricity) She’s in her late 30s, a mother of two, and struggling with balancing her family with her career. Magic isn’t a “day job”, and this makes her choices far more black and white than mine are. Her intention or not, Barbara Hambly took every emotionally painful struggle I’ve ever had with “can I really have it all?” and the guilt I feel when I silently admit my answers, and put it into a fantasy novel. And she did it when I was 6 years old, the same year  I probably uttered “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up!”. As a character, Jenny makes for a powerful metaphor. Is what she wants really what she wants? How much guilt and resentment should Jenny allow herself to feel? If given the opportunity to make different life choices, would she? Should she?

 

Dragonsbane is not a forceful feminist novel (and by not forceful, I mean it doesn’t scream “look at me! I’m a feminist fantasy novel! You should read me because there isn’t enough feminist speculative fiction available!”), but I do think women readers will connect with this story in a different way than male readers.

 

Fear not, lovers of traditional fantasy, there is plenty of sword swing action, courtly intrigue, sneaking about, and of course there is a dragon at the end of the book. And a Dragonsbane. Just not the kind that was ever mentioned in the stories and songs Gareth learned.  I kept saying to myself “If John dies at the end I am going to be SO PISSED OFF”.  The end didn’t piss me off, but there were more than a few tears.

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I love that this book was written 30 years ago. I love that strong and maternal female characters have been around all this time. I love that this is a conversation is that is not new, that Jenny loves and misses her children, and that that is what makes her such a strong character.

7 Responses to "Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly"

Gosh I remember picking this up in the library and had to put it back as the pages were wrecked. Gonna have to hunt down a copy

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if you do e-books, Open Road Media has it,
http://www.openroadmedia.com/barbara-hambly
but other than that, paperbackswap or Interlibrary Loan might be your best bet.

Liked by 1 person

I love this novel, and the rest of the series as well.

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I’d never heard of Hambly before someone recommended Those Who Hunt the Night (because of Open Media’s ebook releases I think) which I am currently reading.
I’ve only just started, but she has another strong wife character in this book too. I think she’s whose catalogue I’ll have to go back and check out.

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This is a Very Favorite of mine, I’ve read it several (well, 3 or so) and enjoy it every time. I’m delighted you liked it.It never occurred to me that it was “a feminist novel”, it’s just a good story, no labels needed.

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Happy to hear this is one of your favorites! any other Hambly titles you’d recommend?

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Oops, was I just jerky again? If so, sorry. I just don’t like labels much.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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