I've been a fan of Barbara Hambly for many years, ever since I read Dragonsbane and fell in love with her descriptive prose and wonderful characterization. While there have been some bumps in that road (mainly in the sequels to this book), I've long considered her my favorite author. For a convention I'm going to where she will be the guest of honor, I thought I would re-read Dragonsbane and see how it has withstood the test of time. After doing so, I am even more infatuated than I was before.
Young Gareth, a courtier in the King's court, has taken it upon himself to journey to the Northlands to find the last remaining Dragonsbane and enlist him to kill the horrible dragon that has been terrorizing the city and surrounding countryside. He happens upon Jenny Waynest, a witch who saves him from bandits and is, to his horror, the lover of the very man he's looking for: John.
Many of Gareth's illusions and misconceptions shatter as he finds John vastly different from everything he has heard in the ballads. John barely survived the last dragon he killed, and he's not eager to go after another one. He feels, though, that he must; maybe then the king will be indebted to him, which would bring much needed aid to the Northlands withdrawn by the king's grandfather many years ago. Jenny foresees horrible events and decides she must come with them. But are Court politics more dangerous than any dragon? And who is this powerful wizard woman who makes Jenny, a woman who has given up becoming a master of magic to bear John's children, extremely jealous? Strange alliances form as the true enemy shifts, and this may be the last ride of any Dragonsbane.
Dragonsbane has everything you could look for in a fantasy book: wonderful characterization, non-stereotypical dragons, beautiful prose - and it's self-contained as well. Yes, it did spawn a sequel trilogy, but that was long after the fact, and this story does not depend on it. I'll begin with the prose, as Hambly's has always been my favorite. One thing I hadn't been sure about was whether her emphasis on description has grown as she continued writing, or whether it was there from the beginning. Dragonsbane is one of her first books, and the description puts you right there in the scene, following her characters as they do or say whatever is needed. An example:
"As night came on the rain increased, the wind throwing it like sea-breakers against the walls of the Hold. John's Aunt Jane brought up a cold supper of meat, cheese, and beer, which Gareth picked at with the air of one doing his duty. Jenny, sitting cross-legged in the corner of the hearth, unwrapped her harp and experimented with its tuning pegs while the men spoke of the roads that led south, and of the slaying of the Golden Dragon of Wyr."
While I love this kind of description, some people don't, so be warned. Also, it always helps if you're intrigued by the plotting, as I have found Hambly's prose makes her books that I don't like feel even slower. That isn't a problem with Dragonsbane, though; I love every page of it.
Hambly's characterization is first-rate, and she plays most of her characters against stereotype. She has fun with this at the beginning; Gareth's misconceptions are the same as many readers would be. A man who has killed dragons should have gleaming armor and long swords to do the trick; they should fight them in honorable combat. Not Hambly's characters. It's fun yet touching to see Gareth's illusions fall apart, and Hambly deepens John and Jenny’s characters in the process. John is loyal to his people but also loyal to the King, despite the King having avoided John's lands for many years. Jenny is a witch in a world where magic is almost self-consuming. To gain any kind of skill, you practically have to devote yourself to it with no distractions. Since she fell in love with John and bore him two sons, she hasn't had the time - thus her skills aren't what they could be. This provides interesting conflict later when they meet Zyerne, the aforementioned wizard. The entire book is told from Jenny's viewpoint, which makes the characterization even better. Gareth visibly changes before her eyes from a star-struck boy who came looking for a dragonsbane to a young man with secrets of his own.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the dragon. Hambly has created a truly three-dimensional character in him, and the conversations between all of the characters suck you in. He's not your normal dragon, and he's more than just an adversary. He's intelligent, quick to anger, but also very honorable and truly wondering why he was called to where he is at now. His pride shows through, but he won't let that get in the way of the obligations that honor forces on him.
The plot takes interesting turns, and Hambly nimbly avoids clichés. Just when it looks like she's going to fall for one, she turns it on its head. While the true villain becomes obvious once the character appears, the book still could have been like any other dragon-slayer book - but it's not. It's something very special. Its theme of being who you are and that the choices you make form your persona is not at all heavy-handed. Most of all, it's a straightforward adventure story about the quest for magic and defeating the evil being. Thought-provoking, but it certainly can be enjoyed on any level.
Any faults in the story are minor and hardly worth mentioning, considering the strength of everything else. For a great introduction to Barbara Hambly, you could do much worse than do what I did: revel in the beauty that is Dragonsbane. After re-reading, it's still one of my favorite books.