Playing up the Nostalgia: Barbara Hambly’s ‘The Time of the Dark’
Given my rant against nostalgia before Christmas, I suppose it’s only fair that I fess up and expose my own recent reading habits. Neither am I without sin!
I don’t remember the precise circumstances, but I had the immense good fortune when I was a teen to come into possession of a literal trove of fantasy and sf. My cousin worked (volunteered?) at the library in her Northern Ontario town and, when it came time to liquidate the old stock – maybe to make room for more, though I have the sneaking suspicion the whole affair was being shuttered – rather than see the lot pulped, she sent me a massive box. Beyond the throughline of fantasy/sf, there really wasn’t much ‘curation,’ shall we say. Heinlein stuffed in next to McCaffrey, the latter 2/3rds of one trilogy floating comfortably amidst the entirety of a series. It was great. I’d been a pretty voracious reader up to that point, which is likely why said cousin thought of me, but this was my first look into sf in particular, and I had a smattering of the greats right at my fingertips. It was the first time I’d read anything by Glen Cook, who has become an enduring favourite (the box had both the whole of the Black Company and the Dread Empire – score!), the first I’d read of Asimov’s, or of Cherryh. It wasn’t all top-tier stuff, don’t get me wrong. There was as much pulp as there were classics, and even a few overtly arty pieces, like John Crowley’s Engine Summer.
So, as you can see, fertile ground for nostalgia of a personal sort, thinking about all the great stuff that I systematically chewed threw back in my formative years. Certain series and novels have stuck with me more than others, and it was two of these that piqued my interest most recently. Barbara Hambly’s Darwath series, which started life as a trilogy, has been something I’d thought about fondly often enough – and lo and behold, it’s newly returned to print! So you certainly shouldn’t go hunting for free copies online, because that is bad and would make you a bad person.
The second series I wanted to talk about is actually in the process of resuscitation, and I’ll be focussing on the newest instalments. That, however, will happen in a later piece.
The first Darwath trilogy (The Time of the Dark, The Walls of Air, and The Armies of Daylight) is an example of what is known as ‘portal fantasy,’ a trope very popular in the late 70’s – 80’s, which has died back slightly since then. If you read a goodly amount of speculative fic, you’ve probably seen instances of it at some point – someone from our world is transported to another, usually reluctantly, and has to quickly come to terms with the changes. From an authorial perspective, this is a ready-made way to expose the reader to a foreign world – the protagonist knows just as much as the reader, and they explore this alien space in tandem. Generally there is some contrivance that precludes immediately jumping back to modern Earth, and the quest is to overcome this and get back to ‘real life.’
The Time of the Dark, while it doesn’t approach this in a very novel way, does pull it off effectively. We are presented with two modern Americans living very different lives – Gil (which I was forever pronouncing with a hard G, though I suspect it’s meant to be otherwise…), a history PhD student in her mid-twenties, bookish, mousey, and reserved, and Rudy, a motorcycle mechanic in his late twenties, already jaded with the rough-and-tumble life on the edge of society and secretly wanting something more. The book opens with several scenes of Gil’s nightmares, witnessing losing battles between some sort of medieval force and creatures of nightmare, with each subsequent one feeling more and more real – as if she were present at the scene, only hidden from view in plain sight. She herself can sense the horror rolling off these shadowy creatures, can hear the splash of water in cisterns and feel of the stone beneath her feet, as if, if she applied the slightest pressure, the fabric would rend and she would find herself in that world. As she is beset by these visions, night after claustrophobic night, it becomes clear that one of the residents of her dreams is growing aware of her presence – the wizard Ingold Inglorion, Gandalf-surrogate supreme. Inglorion pulls himself across to our world, where the two converse – Gil understandably manic with distress, the wizard doing his best to explain the situation: the current proximity of our world to his, the short distance to travel through the void, etc., etc. Things carry on for a few more days, until Inglorion shows up with a babe in tow – the castle has fallen, and he has escaped here, with the crown prince, as a last resort. The trio travel to a disused cabin Gil knows so that the wizard and prince might hide out a while. Rudy, our secondary protagonist, has stumbled into the vicinity himself, stranded after crashing a borrowed car, driving drunk. There is some back and forth, both Rudy and Gil mistrusting the other based on preconceived notions, Rudy expressing disbelief at the outlandish explanation Inglorion offers up with usual candour. All this is swept aside when they are beset by the one of the creatures of the Dark, which had followed Ingold across the gulf and had been hunting he and the prince. A fight ensues, and the only route of escape is to return to Darwath, the alternate world, where it becomes clear that any further travel to Earth will put that world, totally undefended and unprepared, at risk. While the threat of the Dark looms, Gil and Rudy will not be able to return home.
Gil, Rudy and Ingold find themselves a few miles out from the fallen capital, and make for the nearest large town, guessing correctly that the survivors will have regrouped there. The path seems clear – this is not the first time the people of Darwath have faced this horrifying menace: thousands of years before, a civilisation of great engineering and magical prowess was overturned by the alien darkness, leading to a literal dark age with many talents still lost. Humanity survived that first cataclysm by retreating to great forts built by magic, venturing out into the world only under the security of the sun, cowering in the dark as soon as night falls, praying their bastions held. Much was lost and society regressed into a superstitious shadow of its former self, but humanity survived – and one day, the Dark stopped coming – until now. The creatures can be fought, but the price is steep, their very touch can cause madness or death, their blood is as acid. Fortunately, the forts still stand, abandoned, places of ill omen, and the best chance for the rag-tag refugees. To get there, they will have to cross the country, risking attack every night. Making matters worse, it is not only treacherous physical paths they will have to navigate, but political as well: the brother of the Queen, now Protector of the Realm, has a growing desire for power and some very specific ideas about how things ought to be run. Then there is the Bishop of the Church and her military enforcers – eager as the Protector to assume temporal power, with a holy abhorrence of all things magic – one of humanities only effective weapons against the Dark. Disaster awaits any false step!
Thrown in to a dire situation, both Rudy and Gil find themselves taking on roles they never thought possible in the former lives, drawing on talents that, latent while on Earth, have surfaced now that they have found themselves on Darwath. The story is unusual, at least for the time it was written, for having a strong female lead that has both physical presence and intelligence. Hambly goes to great lengths to remind us of Gil’s university career – I couldn’t count the number of times we’re told she’s a ‘scholar.’ Without giving the ending away, the climax of the trilogy hinges on her ability to examine a situation systematically and to argue her position convincingly, so perhaps it’s all of a purpose.
Now that I’m somewhat older and better acquainted with the source material, the Lovecraftian aspects to the stories’ horrors – the language used, the behaviour – is readily evident. It’s been amusing to be able to see the series in a new light, as I hadn’t put two and two together in my memory of it at all.
It will be interesting to take a look at the final two volumes of the trilogy, to see how else my memory has fudged things. As I mentioned, the contents of the box were uneven, and this was one of those series for which I only received a portion of the full set. It was fun piecing together the story, finally getting a crack at the first instalment which I’d before only had my imagination to supply. I can still recall my enjoyment of the twists and turns in the narrative, with its aforementioned deployment of sociology and, though I didn’t recognise it at the time, the borrowed cosmic horror tropes, and I’m hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be thinner than I remember.
Given the electronic form I was reading the work by, I was somewhat surprised come the end of the first book – with no physical collection of quickly diminishing pages, I was left unaware of precisely where I was in the actual length. This isn’t to say that the caesura is overly-abrupt – the book finishes in a reasonable place, given the arc of the story – goals had been achieved, characters and relationships set up, the stage set for the next instalment. Perhaps I’d grown used to the extended, drawn out nature of epic fantasy – stories dragging on for hundreds if not thousands of pages. Quick, pulpy reads catch me off guard.
Hambly became known for her dedication to research in preparing her stories, and it’s in evidence here. As much as this was a quick read, the world of Darwath was detail-rich and coherent. The prose was ambitious, if not always successfully deployed. Even so, the attempt puts the work a cut above your average pulp fantasy, in my opinion. The primary characters are approached with nuance, insofar as space allowed. Most are motivated by psychologically-understandable reasons, which prevents any one from appearing a paragon or insert (and also makes them somewhat grey – a quick scan of online opinion has a number of people complaining that they weren’t especially likeable. Phah!). This also allowed for relatively sharp dialogue – understanding the desires of the characters, whether key or secondary, rendered their interactions believeable. As much as it played it pretty safe with the popular tropes of the day, the book hits the right triggers and snuck in a few surprises, even more so when, from what I can recall, you look at it on the level of the trilogy altogether. You can certainly do worse for a nostalgia read on a weekend or short holiday.
Posted on February 13, 2018, in Reviews and tagged Barbara Hambly, Darwath, Fantasy, Nostalgia, Portal Fantasy, Pulp, Review, Sword and Sorcery, The Time of the Dark. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.