Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 21, 2009

Dragons from stars in an empty sky – Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 9:45 pm

This is a poetic, deeply affecting book – the story of what it means to kill a dragon, and what it means to be a dragon.

John Aversin killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr to protect his people. He’s a crafty, laughing man, a scholar and an engineer with a magpie mind endlessly fascinated by all the scraps of learning he can glean from the decaying, disregarded books of his far northern province. (And one of the little details that first made me love this book, when I was young? The heroes wear glasses.) The dragon, on the other hand, was just a dragon. It’s when we meet the next one that we begin to understand…

To be a mage, you must be a mage. The power, the control, the understanding that magic stands for is an incredible temptation – either devote yourself to magic and nothing else, or be a failure and live in the messy, confusing, distracting world. Mages – and this is a recurring theme in a lot of Hambly’s work – are outside the law, dead to society, not held by the bonds of human fellowship.

Interestingly, though, Hambly shows us this temptation quite the other way around. Jenny Waynest, our viewpoint character, is forever reproaching herself, and trying not to resent her family, for all the wasted time, all the petty distractions of the world, everything that takes her away from scholarship and power.

That’s power, of course, as an end in itself – the diamond-bright glittering wonderfulness of competence and skill. It’s only the antagonist whom we see wielding power for her own ends, rather than to protect someone else or – the truest measure of magic – because there’s simply no way not to.

Gareth, our third protagonist, is also a scholar – an expert in one very narrow field – but the way he grows through the story is to learn to prize real life, real people, over the heroes of songs. Magic, fantasy, and dragons are all amazing things, but they are perilous as well.

This book is an interesting restatement of one of Nietzsche’s meatier soundbites – when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you. Look into the Perilous Realm, and leave some part of yourself behind. What effect does that fragment of soul have?

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