Fantasy Book of the Month July 2011: Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Hobbit, Jun 30, 2011.

  1. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    This month's Book of the Month is an older classic, with a great cover:

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    First published in 1985 (26 years ago!) it is a High fantasy tale. It was a Locus award nominee in 1986 and 1987.

    Discuss!

    Mark
     
  2. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Well, it's my favorite Hambly novel. The rest of the Winterlands series that she ended up doing, I did not like as much, although she ended it well, but it's hard to beat Dragonsbane. It's written in a straightforward style, but is not without poetry. It has a fair amount of action in it, but like Beagle, Cherryh and the rest of that crew, is very centered on the emotional dilemmas of the characters. It's a quest novel, not a war epic.

    The reason that Gareth - who may be a prince but is bespectacled, bookish, gawky, etc. -- goes up to the rougher north Winterlands -- which is kind of Scottish highlands/Viking farmers sort of place -- is that John, who is the lord, but kind of a squire sort of lord, is the only guy around who has ever killed a dragon, as they are so rare in that land as to be virtually extinct, earning him the nickname of Dragonsbane, which he doesn't particularly like. John is a bigger, more strapping guy than Gareth, but is also bookish. And when they had a small gold dragon killing livestock in the North and causing trouble, they read up about it and then went out and killed it, with some regret, and it was not really a monumental feat, but not an easy one and rather traumatic. The great black dragon who's causing a lot more trouble in the lower kingdom is another matter. On one hand, John is sort of obligated to the throne to go try and stop it. On the other hand, he could really not go and if he goes, he's likely to fail and die.

    The relationship between Jenny and John is very complicated. They're sort of married and sort of not. Jenny was trained as a girl by a powerful wizardess who was cold and harsh and disappeared before her training was finished -- which also means that Jenny's rather more human than the usual wizard, who are also rare enough to be virtually extinct, and Jenny lives in her own space and is prone to go off into magical explorations. She is and is not part of the community there. John's father was also cold and harsh and John is a decent leader, but also rather independent. They're both rather moody people but also nice and not fussy.

    When they get plunked down into court, they are essentially exotic primitives and when they realize what Zyrene is, they realize that the whole endeavor is way more complicated than a simple quest. Morkeleb, the dragon, is a really interesting, well done character -- and served as inspiration for numerous dragons in other stories that you are probably more familiar with. Hambly does a good job of making his mind alien without being at all inaccessible.

    Hambly is also very good at humor -- she's known for it -- but it's not a comic story. It's an introspective one, but the pacing doesn't slow.

    Dragonsbane is one of those books that I do tend to recommend to people just beginning to check out what fantasy can do. I'm sure there will be some who don't jive with it, but it has its place on my bookshelf.
     
  3. Rob B

    Rob B \m/ BEER \m/ Staff Member

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    I'd had this book on my internal to read list for years, as far back as when I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club and they offered it in an omnibus with (I think) the second book in the series. By the time I decided to order the book (and I even filled out the book # on the order form) I found out the omnibus was out of print.

    Then I find out that Brandon Sanderson lists this book as One of the Books that Drew Him to Fantasy, so I was very pleased to find a MMPB in very good condition at a great used book shop.

    On to what I though of the book...

    I liked this one a lot, finished it about a week ago after three days. The characters are, if not flashy, interesting. Not the typical fantasy quest heroes and I felt Hambly portrayed the emotions of the three primary characters fairly well. I say fairly because I found Gareth annoying at times and a bit of a brow-beat in that he whined a lot as if to say to the reader that we shouldn't immediately believe legends about real people.

    Jenny's balance between her love for John and her overwhelming almost addictive yearn to learn and become a more powerful mage done quite well.

    What was interesting about this book, historically speaking, is that if falls almost squarely between the release of Sword of Shanarra and The Eye of the World. In that sense, it doesn't fall into the bloat of the post Jordan era and, though it doesn't seem influenced by Brooks, does have a comfort level that is nicely offset by how Hambly toys with the "accepted" notions of great heroes of myth.

    And how about that cover? A classic Whelan dragon, what says 80s fantasy more than that?

    I leave my thoughts there for now and wait to see what others have to say.
     
  4. TooNice

    TooNice Banned

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    this still has yet to be delivered. you guys have me kind of psyched for it though.
     
  5. Mago

    Mago New Member

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    I just stumbled upon this site and as an avid Fantasy reader I'm glad I did.
    "Dragonsbane" is now on my Kindle and I'm ready to roll:) or I will be when I've finished "Before They Are Hanged" (Joe Abercrombie).
     
  6. Carlyle Clark

    Carlyle Clark Registered User

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    As I recall, this was the first novel I ran across—one of those used bookstore impulse buy treasures—where the protagonists were far out of the mold of what I was sued to.

    The female protagonist, Jenny, was not the primary custodian of the children and didn't want to be. Who actually chose to live alone and needed her solitude.

    The male protagonist, John, was the first bookish man-of-action who thought his way through problems. Since Odysseus has always been one of my favorites and I was distinctly bookish, John was not only new for me but fun and easy to identify with.

    Also, even when I was a kid, I never could understand fighting a dragon with a sword. I couldn't even see how you could kill a grizzly with a sword and it's can't fly away and breath fire.

    It also opened up the idea to an at the time typical male teenage action junkie, that there was such a thing as an enthralling novel that didn't have fights every other chapter. Hambly worked in conflict on every level, the Jenny & Johnny's relationship, the court politics, and of course the dragon, and a few more things I just can't think of so it made for great suspense.

    And I also liked the way John "played" at being the Barbarian while at court. And the love triangle with a dragon was brilliant in that it had been set-up already by Jenny's bent toward solitude and commitment to magical exploration, which it made it a realistic option for her to actually take Morkeleb up on his offer, and I was able to really see how she could decide to do it which made for good suspense. It certainly didn't have that feeling that there would be an inevitable happily ever after.

    It definitely earns its spot at the top of my bookshelf.
     
  7. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Well not if you were reading the books between Shanarra and Wheel. :) The length of Hambly's tale, the focus, etc. were pretty common. And they weren't uncommon after Wheel of Time either. It's just that we had a section of fans, after Williams, Jordan, etc., who declared large secondary world war epics to be "all that there was in fantasy." And quite often large secondary world war epics do very well. But as was rather forcibly shown to fans in the oughts, they aren't the only sort of thing to do well. When Hambly was doing this book, contemporary fantasy was actually more revered critically, and so she got points for having what some felt was a contemporary-ish spin on the tale.

    Dragonsbane also did get a lot of attention for playing with the notion of a hero, though it's worth pointing out that she didn't do that by making John a vicious bunny. However, in the subsequent novels, John is having to deal with more savage forces. John is really the reluctant, weary leader sort and I always thought that worked well with Gareth's puppy inexperience. (Gareth greatly changes in the series.) Jenny is really a wonderfully complex, fully rounded female character.

    But mostly the book is just fun and Hambly is very good at dialogue too.
     
  8. Jon Sprunk

    Jon Sprunk Book of the Black Earth

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    Mine, too. I've probably read it close to ten times. The notion of the unenthusiastic dragonslayer, Jenny's yearning to know her craft better, Gareth's awkwardness -- they all combined into a wonderful melange for me.
     
  9. EMMAXIS

    EMMAXIS Registered User

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    Wow! This brings back memories! Unfortunately, I can't quite discuss the novel as I can hardly remember it, but I read this when I was 14 yo in 9th grade (that was 22 years ago!). I selected it from my high school library for an English class book report. I recall the main character turning into a dragon toward the end of the book and how she was able to see and hear things she otherwise wouldn't as a human. I also remember being supremely disappointed by the book's lack of action, but I was 14, so action was much more important to me. I'd likely appreciate it differently today.

    Nick Alimonos
     
  10. Teresa Edgerton

    Teresa Edgerton Goblin Princess

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    I loved this book. Hambly's other books never caught my interest or my affections in the same way. I think the relationship between Jenny and John was the main reason I enjoyed the book so much -- they're plain, middle-aged lovers (their is not your typical fantasy romance) and yet their bond is very deep and romantic, even though Jenny's magic requires that they don't live together.

    The other books in the series disappointed me.
     
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2011
  11. algernoninc

    algernoninc Now I'm an axolotl

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    my first Hambly book - picked because it is chosen as book of the month. liked it, and will recommend it in the future as a good starting point for fantasy readers.
    Good pacing and dialogue, didn't feel bloated at any point. the relationship between John and Jenny is very convincing, less so Zyerne and Gareth.
    I am tempted to try the next books in this setting.
     
  12. txshusker

    txshusker A mere player

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    I'm glad BH is getting some read time. I liked this book a lot once upon a time. (well, I'm sure i would again, of course... nothing's changed, except I can't remember a lot about it). And thought her Sun Wolf series and a few others had some fun and clever characters.
     
  13. ezchaos

    ezchaos Next to Arch Stanton

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    Glad to see an "oldie" being discussed. Dragonsbane was probably one of the first adult fantasy books I read in the 80's. I picked it up used a few years ago and enjoyed it once again. It's definitely not a cookie cutter fantasy.