The Review: Blood Maidens

Blood Maidens; Barbara Hambly, 2010; Severn House8388595

As my readers know, I’m a big Hambly fan (she’s in My Favorite Reads list). As talent goes, Barbara always restores my faith in the power of good narrative – which, let’s face it, not every writer can do without making me want to shoot myself (or worse, skip over the entire passage). She also does an excellent job with dialog and the make-it-or-break-it, ‘show don’t tell’. (Which if you didn’t know, wasn’t a big deal until about fifty or sixty years ago.) And in today’s historical-paranormal-romance genre, its hard for an author to come up with a unique twist that doesn’t involve a woman in leather, give-me-a-break-sex scenes and vampires.

But Hambly does.

Fact is, she’s done such a great job with her James Asher series, I finish every book relieved to know my imagination is still in tact: i.e.- I get to decide whether the sex was hot and heavy, or if the main vampire, Don Simon Ysidro, is really as nasty as he’d like James and his wife Lydia, to believe.

 “Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” ― Neil Gaiman

I also appreciate that this author knows her history and does an incredible job of weaving fantasy, paranormal, romance and history into one really good plot; my four favorite escape genre’s, all rolled into one. Nine times out of ten, Hambly will hit a home run.

Unfortunately, this was that one that didn’t quiet make it to home plate.

Not that she didn’t do a wonderful job with the history and the paranormal and the romance or the dialog or the narrative. Where she would have lost me, had I not whipped out my ‘Loyal Reader Badge’, was the first twenty or so pages. It was almost as though it took her awhile to figure out where she was going with the story, and then forgot to go back in the re-write and tidy up the confusion. In other words, it took quiet a while for me to connect with the story she was trying to tell. Too convoluted by far. Which is not her normal style. It also didn’t help that there were so many Russian names, I couldn’t keep track of them (What do they always tell an author about having too many characters?)

So on my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I’m giving Blood Maiden, a 3 for taking too long to reach first base.


Traveling With the Dead

Traveling With the Dead; 1995 Barbara Hambly; Del Ray, NY773989

This is number two of Hambly’s vampire/murder/suspense novels involving Dr. James Asher, his wife Lydia Asher and their unwilling, older than dirt, vamperic associate Don Simon Ysidro.

As always my reviews are not as much about the content of the book as it is about the over all flow and structure. But let me state here that I think of the three books in this particular series to date – “Those Who Hunt the Night”; “The Magistrates of Hell”; and “Traveling With the Dead” –  book number two is by far my favorite, at least in terms of story and plot.

What I like most about the author’s stories is their ease of  read and that almost all of her characters are even easier to connect to; something I can’t say about every author’s work I read. It’s not that the plot is simple or that the characters have no depth or emotional texture to grab hold of – just the opposite. But if Hemingway wrote to stimulate the soul, then Hambly writes to entertain it with intelligence and ingenuity. And though I wouldn’t use  terms like ‘brilliant’ in connection with her prose, I wouldn’t hesitate to use ‘astute’, ‘clever’, ‘cunning’, ‘intriguing’ or ‘vulnerable’.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”― J.D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye

Mechanically speaking I think it would be hard to fault Hambly’s efforts (but then I’m the one who loves a truly convoluted tale whose main characters have been known to switch plot lanes without turn signals) but correctly structured stories still don’t guarantee the story is worth the read. In this case she’s managed to do both: write a well structured story while telling a good tale.

If I were looking for something to stimulate my cerebral cortex I’d probably have gone with Hemingway. But on the other hand if I were looking to unplug from a long day of writing, SM, and life in general and I needed to be delightfully entertained, I’d go with “Traveling With the Dead.”

On my reader scale of one to five stars I’m giving Traveling With the Dead 3.5 stars.

Dragonstar: The Review

176254Dragonstar: Barbara Hambly, 2002; Del Ray

Reader loyalty, in my not so humble opinion, is one of the greatest weapons an author can have. Beside putting money in their pocket, loyal readers hold an authors reputation together during those times when brilliancy seems to have left the building and all they are left holding is a bag of good ideas and respectable prose.

It also gives them a much needed anchor from which to be able to redeem something that might need redeeming; like the third book in Barbara Hambly’s Winterland series – “Knight of the Demon Queen“.

So it was with immense relief when, no sooner had I reached the end of the first page of her fourth book, “Dragonstar”, that I knew all my trepidation over whether  I’d have to put it down or not, was in vain.

Within moments, all the things I so enjoyed about the first two novels were found within the first paragraph of this one. The authors dedication to character revelation; her commitment to scenes that moved the plot forward without losing the reader in mind numbing details;  her ability to make us empathize, relate, and compare our own challenges with those of our beloved hero’s – all there. All woven into the fabric of a story that once again leaves us with just enough resolution to make us feel warm and fuzzy, without smothering us in the afterglow.

In my reader scale of 1-5 stars, I have to give “Dragonstar” 4 stars.

Knight of the Demon Queen: The Review

Knight of the Demon Queen: Barbara Hambly, 2000; Del Raybooks (3)

If I had not enjoyed the first two books in the Winterland series as much as I did, I would have put this one down after about the third or fourth page. But loyalty is the game, and with that in mind I tightened up my reader belt and made a commitment to read the third book all the way through it to the end (with only minimal page skipping).

So what was it about #3 that I found so difficult to get through?

Just about everything. From a lack of good character development, to story line, to world shifting. Maybe if Hambly hadn’t jumped off planet and tried to incorporate a twisted version of Earth-hell into the story, I might have not been so turned off.  But she did, and because of it, I found myself continually checking ahead of where I was to see if the nightmare would ever end.

Not a good reader sign. It felt like she’d invited me out to dinner at my favorite restaurant, only to discover that the menu has been completely altered;  instead of serving my favorite Lobster Cannelloni, I was handed  a plate of spaghetti (and you can ask my mother, I hate spaghetti) and a bottle of cheap, l0gonberry wine. It takes everything in you to keep from getting up and walking out.

But on a shelf across the room, sat the fourth book in Hambly’s Winterland series, and given that I had complete confidence that she could redeem this thing, I stuck it out.

On my readers scale of 1-5 stars, I gave “Knight of the Demon Queen” 3 stars.

Dragonshadow: The Review

Dragbooks (2)onshadow:  Barbara Hambly, 1999; Del Ray

In this book, Hambly picks up where Dragonsbane left off, only  now she’s given her heroine the thing she most desires – powerful magic. And not just any magic, but the magic of dragons; which goes beyond the keen of mortal minds and bestows upon Jenny Waynest the power of a mage. But as all mere mortals know, its not always wise to seek bright and shiny things for the illusion of what we think we will gain, once we possess them.

As our heroine and her counter hero all too soon find out when the Realm of Belmaire becomes the maelstrom of demons, inflated egos, and unswerving loyalty – with Jenny, Lord John, and all they love and hold dear, trapped right in the middle.

Just as she did with “Dragonsbane”,  Barbara Hambly does a wonderful job of building upon the inner workings of her characters hearts and minds to create a bond between the reader and their story. And even more so than in her  first book, Dragonshadow, Hambly continues to pull back the falsetto of mankind’s humanity in order to expose things better left un-revealed – unknown;  darkness that lurks and hides itself in the hearts of even the most righteous of us.

This time around, the author doesn’t end the story by letting our hero’s off with sweet resolutions, tied up loose ends,  or quaint clichés. And she certainly doesn’t leave the reader  feeling all warm and fuzzy.  Instead she abandones her hero’s exactly as they are:  torn, bruised, and in serious doubt over whether they have what it takes to be healed and go on.

A lot more real than fantasy.

Much more reflective of the reality of what you and I face every day of our lives.

Real people who make choices whose outcome leave us without hope, without resolution.

On my reader’s scale of 1-5, I gave Dragonshadow 4.5 stars.

Dragonsbane: The Review

barbara-hambly Winterland Series; Barbara Hambly;  

From the moment I encountered “Smaug” in J.R.R.Tolkien’s,  “The Hobbit” I have been hooked on all things dragon.  It didn’t hurt that I grew up in the early days of C. S. Lewis, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”; Ursula K. Le Guin “Earthsea”; Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragon Riders of Pern”; Terry Brooks “Magic Kingdom”, Raymond Fiest “Riftwars”;  Piers Anthony’s “Xanth”; or lately, Christopher Paolini’s ” Alagasia”.  As a result, my addiction to dragons, and dragon lore, has been a constant source of delight.

But it was during in my twenty year hiatus from friction, that Barbara Hambly’s “Winterland” series sprang up; which meant that it wasn’t until just recently that it found a place on the shelf alongside all those other books and authors I am currently in the process of re-discovering. Dragonbane

Dragansbane: 1986; Del Ray

The story starts out a little slow, but you quickly come to appreciate how Hambly uses that to lay down a strong foundation for her characters, Jenny Waynest and Lord John Aversin. In Jenny, the author weaves the DNA of a woman struggling with her identity, her powers as a witch – wanna be mage, and her place in the world as wife, mother, and dragon friend. In John, Hambly takes the foolish things of this world, and creates a character that is both wise, noble, and unshakably loyal.  Out of the dust and blood and mire and deceit within the Realm of Belmaire, emerges two unlikely hero’s.

Hambly doesn’t waste a lot of words on scenery or physical surroundings; only in so much as they help to exploit the back story or further develop her action and suspense scenes. Instead she pours her energy into bringing the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters; melding our senses with theirs; empowering us to voyeuristically experience the turmoil of humanity versus magic, integrity versus deceit, disappointment versus triumph, love versus hate.

I love that her ending, though resolved,  still manages to leave the reader longing for something more; as if we’ve caught a glimpse of fairy dust, which when caught, slips through our minds like whispers on the wind.

On my readers scale of 1-5, I gave “Dragonsbane” 4 stars.

The Magistrates of Hell: the review

Magistrates-of-Hell-Hambly-Barbara-9780727881588 The Magistrates of Hell; Barbara Hambly, 2012; Severn House Publishers LTD; Surrey, England.

I stumbled upon Hambly much the same way I do a lot of my reading material; just plain dumb luck. Seriously! I haunt the library shelves until something catches my eye; if the jacket looks interesting (and everyone has their clothes still intact) I’ll toss the book on a pile of other volumes which have caught my attention, lug them home, read and judge.

Why wait until I’m home before reading and making a decision whether it’s a keeper you might ask? Because reading a book is a lot like trying on clothes: who in their right mind wants to try on clothes in a noisy,  poorly lit, poorly concealed, dressing room, where the lighting and ambiance is so bad, no one ever looks good. That’s how I feel about a book (especially by an author I’ve never read): to get the best feel for the authors work, I need to take the thing home, close out the world, and allow the writer and their characters to convince me that what they’ve written is worth investing the next two or three evenings of my life with.

The Magistrates of Hell was well worth the time I gave to it.

This  is book number four in the James Asher-Vampire series (again, the predilection towards bad boys….I swear it’s a DNA thing), and since I share the authors fondness for European history, I’m thoroughly enjoying the read.barbara-hambly

In this particular novel, Hambly uses the upheaval of early twentieth century China as a vehicle for exploring the notion that ancestral worship may have more serious implications than one might think: go to temple, worship granddad’s statue or shrine…oh yea…his eye teeth tend to elongate after dark…he’s a god and likes his meals @98.6 ̊…fresh off the vein.

And don’t forget the slightly – chilled – 400 – year – old – family – friend – savior; he’s a little long in the tooth as well.

Occasionally  Hambly’s writing bogs down as she pauses to fill in  Asher’s back story (information she uses to give credence to current situational responses), leaving the reader with a sense that maybe she ought to have begun the series one or two books prior to Those That Hunt the Night (first in the series). But since she doesn’t belabor the point, the pause is brief and easily negotiated.

On the whole, this kind of fiction may not challenge the limbic system but it is well written, well-developed, and helps keep me from wasting forty-two hours a week channel surfing between 65 popular television stations.

Like mixing together a nice batch of cookies, Hambly does a wonderful job of measuring out just the right amount of suspense, vamperic mystery, history, evil, and just a smidgen of romance to make reading her novels a very pleasant way to spend the evening (or if you live in the PNW, rainy day).

On a scale of one to five I’m giving ‘The Magistrates of Hell’ four stars.

From the laptop of an uncensored dreamer