Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Cover of Dragonsbane featuring a greyscale illustration of a dragon's silhouette soaring over bare treetops. The title and border of the cover are in red and white.
Barbara Hambly’s DRAGONSBANE is one of those novels you hear about everywhere. Seems like everyone in the SFF scene has read it, and they’re all keen to tell you what it means to them. Many creators cite it as a formative influence, and many fans squee over the multitude of things it gets right. Even Hambly herself lists it among her favourite of her novels--and she’s written a ton of them, so that’s saying something.

I myself finally read DRAGONSBANE last month, and I'm ready and willing to tell y'all all about the experience.

Jenny Waynest, a witch of some small power, once aided the famed Dragonsbane John Aversin in ending a threat to their remote northern community. A decade later, the south prevails upon John, hero of a thousand ballads that make no mention of Jenny, to kill a new dragon that terrorizes the kingdom's capitol itself.

Jenny, aware that John may need her skills again, accompanies him south--and finds this new dragon a far more formidable foe than the first, and not for the reasons she expects.

Well, friends, the wider SFF scene was right. DRAGONSBANE is an immediately gripping story, and a deeply feminist one. Dragon-hunting aside, the book is very much concerned with examining womens’ choices and the spaces within which they make them.

I'm far more interested in the characters than the plot, so that's what we're gonna discuss here. Okay?

Jenny is a mage by vocation and a healer because her community demands it of her. She’s in love with John, but cannot fully devote herself to this relationship for a variety of reasons. On a social level, marriage is impossible because no priest will sanction a wedding that includes a mageborn person. The mageborn are thought to be flighty and inclined to wander away from their responsibilities, so apparently it's not even worth giving anything long term a chance.

Jenny also lives apart from John and their two children because magic demands a mage's absolute devotion. So long as she shares a residence, she can’t properly engage in the intense, focused activities necessary to increase her power.

The kicker here is that giving even part of herself to her family and her community reduces Jenny’s magical potential. Magic requires absolute devotion, and that's impossible for soeone with Jenny's obligations. Consequently, she has never become particularly powerful, and she's keenly aware of it.

It’s an obvious parallel between Jenny’s world and the one we inhabit. Society pulls women in so many different directions that it can feel difficult to master anything. Women are denigrated if they eschew family life to build their career, or if they turn away from a socially acceptable career to pursue something less conventional. I imagine Jenny’s situation hit even harder in the 80s, or even the 90s, when many women were expected to abandon their jobs as soon as they married, or to forgo marriage for the sake of their careers.

So right away, we have a woman who’s been presented with a series of choices, and who has chosen a little bit of each world instead of embracing everything either one as to offer. And she is keenly aware of what she’s given up in each case.

Jenny wants power. She wants to be the mage her early potential hinted at. She loves John and has no desire to abandon him, but a part of her also resents him and their children for keeping her from achieving true strength. She feels guilty for loving him so much, and for not loving her children enough. And on some level, she’s willing to give in to the part of her that resents them because it’s what society expects. Jenny is a mage, after all, and the mageborn are fickle. The mageborn are impossible to hold. If Jenny wants to explore her own power at her family’s expense… well, that’s just what a mageborn person does.

At the same time, a much smaller, less acknowledged part of her resents her power for keeping her from her family. She pulls away from this idea because power is the ultimate goal. Power is her reason. And she doesn't think familial power is worth anything like as much as magical power.

It’s fascinating, heartrending stuff, and it's all the more gripping because of how Hambly handles Jenny's ever-evolving relationship with magic. Magic isn't a simple force, and it’s not something just anyone can take up. It demands difficult work and the sort of concentration that is at once grounded and fleeting, achievable and horribly hard to grasp and keep.

Jenny’s relationship with John is just as interesting as her relationship with magic. They have a healthy, adult connection, and each recognizes and accounts for the other's abilities. They make decisions in consultation with one another, always with the understanding that what works for one of them might not work for both. And even though John is the one hailed as Dragonsbane in song and legend, they’re really both the Dragonsbane. John could never have struck the killing blow without Jenny's magic. They've continued to work as a team in the years since then, whether they’re fighting dragons, keeping their community safe, or discussing the scholarly tomes John would love to devote himself to.

John’s situation parallels Jenny’s in many ways. He’s fixated on engineering, agriculture, and the historical past, but he’s obliged to push these interests aside in favour of his duties as lord. He lacks the time and space he needs to devote himself to scholarship. He’s hampered, too, by the Winterlands’ distance for the rest of the kingdom. Books are difficult to come by and visiting scholars are few and far between.

John receives some stigma for his unconventional interests, but it's not as virulent as what Jenny weathers. This is true also true where their sexual relationship is concerned. Nobody is terribly concerned that John has taken a mistress, but several characters are are shocked that Jenny, a witch, has attached herself to an important and famed lord. From Jenny's point of view, her love for John has diminished her. So far as Gareth, the southern nobleman who contracts them to kill the dragon, is concerned, John is the one diminished by Jenny's insistence on sticking close to him. It’s a telling double standard.

Moving slightly away from Jenny and John, we have the dragon, who is far from simply a malevolent force. Its actions are detrimental to the kingdom’s humans and gnomes, but both Jenny and John recognize that it behaves according to its nature rather than out of malice. Neither one truly wants to kill it, but they’re willing to try in order to gain the king’s favour and help the Winterlands flourish. They begin reluctantly, and Jenny’s reservations grow even moreso when the dragon offers her yet another choice: one that could provide her with the sort of power she has always craved, but at the expense of her family.

Her resulting struggle forms much of the book’s core, so I shall say no more.

DRAGONSBANE also presents us with a female villain who pursues her own goals and makes her own choices. She isn’t quite as fleshed out on the page as the other characters, but that’s because Hambly writes in tight third person. We get Jenny’s impressions, no more. I’m confident that if we were to dip into Zyerne’s head, we’d find her just as driven as Jenny, albeit with a more admittedly selfish goal in mind. In some ways, she’s Jenny divorced of the need to worry about others; Jenny with nothing but power and gain in mind.

I’ll admit, the book’s climax didn’t entrance me as much as what came before it, but the big picture and the fabulous ending ensure I’ll be recommending this one far and wide for years to come. You want to read DRAGONSBANE, friends. It’s not just an important SFF text--it’s a great, thought provoking story, and it belongs in your reading list.

Links

While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned, especially with an older title like this one. If you're in search of another way to read DRAGONSBANE, you can try:

  • Kobo (e-book; for purchase; coupons work)
  • Amazon (Kindle; for purchase)
  • Audible (audio; for purchase or via one-month free trial)
  • Scribd (e-book; subscription service; free for two months and $8.99/month thereafter)

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, Amazon, or Audible. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

6 comments:

  1. I really want to read this! If I ever get back to reading novels...

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    1. Open Road publishes the ebook, so I'm sure it must be on Scribd!

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  2. Here is an exact representation of my face when I saw that the protagonist's name is Jenny: http://ak-hdl.buzzfed.com/static/2013-12/enhanced/webdr06/3/13/anigif_enhanced-buzz-4155-1386096821-0.gif WILL NOW READ.

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    1. Jennys (Jennies? Spellcheck thinks it's Jennies, but Spellcheck can't spell its own name so I'm dubious) of the world unite!

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  3. I always think it's super interesting when magicians are required to dedicate everything to magic and nothing else, because what is magic except a tool to help people? Or dominate them, I guess. Either way, you have to be in the world SOMEHOW. It's impossible to completely cut yourself off and only stick to studying. It's a trap; either you make the effort to remove yourself and fail, or you don't make the effort and fail. And either way, you're a terrible magician. I really felt Jenny's anguish over this in the book. :(

    Anyway, I really liked Dragonsbane, too! Are you planning on reading the next book in the series?

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    1. I guess it becomes an academic thing if you treat it the way magicians in Jenny's world are supposed to treat it; like when someone studies the hell out of music theory but never learns to play an instrument themselves. I get Jenny's stance on it all, too. It's like when I want to know everything about something, but I know I don't have the space in my life for that sort of intense study and I get really, really grumpy over it.

      Which, okay, isn't on the same anguish level, but it's the same basic idea.

      I haven't decided if I'll read the sequel. A couple years back, the folks on the SF Squeecast devoted part of an episode to DRAGONSBANE, and they were all of the opinion the second book kind of ruined the first and was best left alone. That makes me both wary and curious.

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