★ ★ ★ 1/2
A recent read of Those Who Hunt the Night led me to one of Hambly’s early series, The Time of the Dark. First published in 1982, it has the feel of many of the ‘crossworlds fantasy’ books so popular in that time period (Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series, Terry Brooks’ Landover, Jack Chalker’s Dancing Gods, Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, Norton’s Witch World, to name ones I read). Hambly adds a refreshing touch in her trained historian’s viewpoint, as well as a fresher take on tired female tropes. If you are looking for classic portal fantasy, this is a great place to start.
Gil Patterson, a graduate student in medieval history, is troubled by realistic dreams with a powerful aura of impending doom. In one of the first dreams, a weatherbeaten old man seems to see her, and in a subsequent dream, actually talks with her. One night, she wakes up and he is sitting at her kitchen table, and Gil starts to believe. The man, named Ingold, is a warrior and a wizard, able to cross between the two worlds, and is looking for an escape hatch for a special person from the growing terror of the Dark. When Ingold arrives at a safehouse in the California desert he crosses paths with Rudy, an artist trying to repair a broken-down car. Gil and Rudy choose to support Ingold and are drawn farther than they ever imagined.
The writing is vivid and does a nice job of creating the atmosphere of tension and danger. World-building was done well enough that I felt as if I was there. From one of Gil’s early dreams:
“The wind from the house increased, chilling her. She edged her way back toward the dark gate, feeling herself beginning to shiver, her feet icy on the marble pavement. The silence of the place was terrible; even the screaming flight of that first night would have been more welcome. Then she had been in a crowd, though unseen; then she had not been alone. Silent and terrible, the lurker waited on the threshold of that dark house, and she knew that she must flee for her life. She would not be able to waken out of this dream; she knew that she was already awake.”
It was entertaining, and I certainly read through to the end without my normal attention-deficit skimming used in reads that bore or annoy. Mostly, though, plotting feels rather genre standard, with some upgrades. Magical old man full of portents, undiscovered powers in the now-world recruits, uncanny progress adjusting to a new world, political animosity between the lord and his brother, a baby as savior, selfish religious leaders, the ‘Dark’ coming to devour humanity, etc. Hambly avoids the MacGuffin of ‘the journey back to the home world,’ so she deserves kudos there. Plotting was less world-scale than I expected, more of a survivalist focus, and while it doesn’t leave a cliffhanger ending in the personal sense, it is clear that the story is to be continued.
Characters are above average. Although Gil is a loner (of course), she has a great deal of knowledge to draw from, as well as her intuition. Surprisingly, however, she finds her physical skills are the ones in demand, a definite counter to stereotype. Rudy comes from a family-oriented, hard-scrabble background but works as an artist, again a more unusual take on the typical fantasy male stand-in. He’s the one that develops his emotional and intuition, which Gil takes on all new roles for her.
I wish I had found this series when it was first published in 1982; I would have loved it, far more than Brooks or Donaldson, which were filled with misogyny even a teenage girl could recognize. It’s definitely more accessible than Witch World, which was prone to sparse details, and less mythological-based than the Fionavar Tapestry, so it should appeal to readers who prefer more concrete details. Now, decades later, it feels above average for genre, if somewhat uninspired–but I suspect that is more because of my changing reader expectations for fantasy. I’ll be looking for the next book.