Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly is a novel of magic and mystery with political and religious intrigue. As usual, Hambly sets the scene very well, and it is nice to get away from the characters she is known for and to get to know some other people. With an interesting world and good characters to populate it, Hambly recovers from her last fantasy debacle (Dragonstar) to hit one out of the park.
In a world run completely by men, where women are subjugated, kept behind veils and not allowed to do much of anything, magic is completely a male domain. Powerful wizards have made sure that water and rain came to the Yellow City and the Realm of the Seven Lakes for hundreds of years. But the rain has been slower and slower to come, and this year is the worst ever. The power seems to be waning, with men who held great ability to wield magic slowly losing it so they canít even cast a simple fire spell. The wells are running dry, and civil unrest is growing.
Inexplicably, magical power is starting to germinate in certain women around the city. This is unthinkable to most men, who seem to think that it is all fakery. But the power does exist, and social change canít be far behind. But that is a matter for the future; and right now the most important thing is to get the rain to fall.
Or is it? Raeshaldis, the first female initiate in the College of Sun Mages, senses an evil force stalking her. The magic canít protect other women from disappearing as well, and Raeshaldis must determine what is going on. The Summer Concubine, mistress of King Oryn and head of the female mages, must aid the king in finding out the source of the unrest in the city, as well as helping Shaldis find what is stalking her. Followers of the One God have decreed that wizards in general, and female wizards in particular, are a sin, and that is why the rain is not falling. Others are trying to steal power in the realm as well. With all of this going on, will Shaldis be able to find the secret of the evil that is following her? And will it mean the death of the kingdom as they know it?
Hambly has such a good touch with characters and setting that I have been wanting to see something not set in any of her other worlds from her for a long time. She has two long-running series - Benjamin January and the series that takes place in the world of Dragonsbane) - and I was beginning to wonder about her. But no more. Here, she shows off her creative talents once again. The world she creates lives and breathes. The characters leap off the page in full three dimensions (except when itís not necessary). Her descriptions of everyday life are scrumptious. As characters walk down the street, you get the feeling that you are walking down the street with them. She is a wonderful scene-setter, and you never know what detail is going to be important because she provides you with so much. The setting is so rich that I have no complaints, but if you donít like a lot of description, you may find yourself skimming this book (and most of her others) at times. Personally, I think that's one of her strengths.
As Iíve pointed out before, though, this only works when the story she is telling is good and the characters are interesting. It can really drag when the rest of the book doesnít support it - but thatís not a problem here. Even the bit characters are distinctive, even if they donít truly have a third dimension. She has created an intriguing society where women generally donít even have their own names, but instead titles: the Summer Concubine, Corn-Tassel Woman, Pomegranate Woman. Even so, you can always tell them apart. The only time it may be difficult is when they donít appear on the page but are only talked about. Oryn and the Summer Concubine have a wonderful relationship based on love and trust. She acts as she does because society demands it, but she also wields great power behind the scenes, and Oryn trusts her completely.
Raeshaldis is the other main character and also remarkably drawn. Hambly does a wonderful job of crafting her. We see the naivete of a young woman who is a little bit out of her element but is confident in some of her spells (such as the cloak that hides her when she walks around sometimes). Although hurt by the ridicule and hazing of the male students at the college, she is strong-willed and willing to do what it takes to learn her trade. She is courageous when she has to find out what is stalking her and the other female mages around the city - and she is intelligent. Hambly puts all these character traits together and produces a character that you want to read about.
The villains arenít badly done either. Mohrvine, Orynís uncle, is power-hungry but practical as well. He uses whomever he needs to in order to take over the throne, but he is not afraid to side with the good guys when he has to. The ultimate opportunist, he believes that what he is doing is best for the realm. Oryn has always been a bit of a dandy, and Mohrvine doesnít think he is strong enough to be king. Lohar is not as well-drawn, more of a plot device then a true character; he is fairly one-note (though instantly recognizable when on the page), and his religious rantings can grow a tiresome after awhile. Thankfully, while he does appear often as the unrest in the city gets worse, his parts are in small doses so that he doesnít outstay his welcome. And the way Oryn finally gets him is priceless, and perfectly in character for Oryn.
The plot is small and local, a nice change of pace from threats to the entire world that inhabit so many other fantasy novels. Great magic is involved but done on a small scale, with individual characters and one society being affected. Hamblyís descriptions are wonderful, but her prose in other areas is good as well. There isnít a whole lot of action, but what is there is clearly described. The final confrontation is breath-taking, and the dialogue is good as well. The only thing that mars it slightly is some repetition. It is there for effect, but it grates after awhile. This repetition occurs mainly when characters think the same thing over and over within a given section. Itís used to show how important what theyíre thinking about is and how it weighs on their minds, and it can be effective in small doses. I think Hambly overuses it a bit here.
Still, that doesnít detract from what is a wonderful fantasy novel. Sisters of the Raven could go on to spawn many sequels, though it is self-contained. I once thought that it shouldn't have a sequel, but I see the possibilities. They could be endless. This wonderful novel deserves to be read by any fan of fantasy fiction.