Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Hambly, Barbara

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(1951-    ) US writer. All of BH's fantasies take place in worlds that are explicitly part of a Multiverse, as is her Earth; protagonists from Earth have discovered full power and agency in other worlds where magic is more operational, and at least one of her mages has found his full strength here. These worlds have in common that those gifted with magic are a Pariah Elite, often pursued by Church and State; only occasionally, as in Stranger at the Wedding (1994; vt Sorcerer's Ward UK 1994), has BH provided a salutary sense of the power of magic to work petty personal evil.

Such considerations are crucial to her early Darwath trilogy – The Time of the Dark (1982), The Walls of Air (1983) and The Armies of Daylight (1983) – where two standard California misfits, a woman scholar and a boy biker, find themselves shoulder to shoulder with Wizards and warriors against a resurgence of powerful beings that mingle H P Lovecraft with the Alien movies, and against back-stabbing intrigues by courtiers and inquisitors. Both Gil and Rudy are standard Brave-Little-Tailor figures discovering new strengths as swordswoman and magus.

The Sun Wolf books – The Ladies of Mandrigyn (1984), The Witches of Wenshar (1987), these two assembled as The Unschooled Wizard (omni 1987), and The Dark Hand of Magic (1990) – are Template fantasies in that Sun Wolf, one of the few surviving Wizards in a world where an evil wizard has extirpated his own kind, seeks instruction in powers he can only partially control. His laconic lover is Star Hawk; in The Witches of Wenshar the Duo find themselves solving that most unlikely of things, an S&S country-house murder mystery.

BH's most explicitly Revisionist Fantasy is Dragonsbane (1986), whose middle-aged warrior and witch protagonists killed a Dragon once, found it a messy job, and resent being required to do it again. This is at once her funniest book and her saddest, as her heroine faces the choice of mediocre human happiness with husband and children or full glorious power and the loss of humanity. The Gaslight Romance Those Who Hunt the Night (1988; vt Immortal Blood 1988 UK) forces a UK scholar-agent and his lover to investigate the serial killing (see Serial Killers) of London's Vampires (whose status is partly rationalized; see Rationalized Fantasy). In a sequel, Travelling with the Dead (1995 UK), the same duo and their vampire Mentor/adversary travel severally to Istanbul in an attempt to prevent a vampiric dimension in the looming WWI.

One of BH's great strengths is that she both gives her readers what they want and then explores the ethics. When in The Dark Hand of Magic Sun Wolf and Star Hawk meet up with their old company, they find themselves caught up with quandaries about the mercenary calling. In Bride of the Rat God (1994), a supernatural fantasy set in 1920s Hollywood (see Los Angeles), we long for the overbearing silent-movie star to whom the heroine acts as companion to get a comeuppance, but find ourselves concerned for her when that comeuppance takes the form of the supernatural menace of a Demon.

The two remaining series rehearse similar themes, both dealing with persecuted mages and interactions with Earth. Sun-CrossThe Rainbow Abyss (1991 UK) and The Magicians of Night (1992), assembled as Sun-Cross (omni 1992) – takes the protagonist Rhion on a guided tour of oppression at home and then enables him to escape to what he thinks is a safe haven, but which turns out to be the Third Reich (see World War II). In the Antryg Windrose series – The Silent Tower (1986) and The Silicon Mage (1988), both assembled as Darkmage (omni 1988), plus Dog Wizard (1993) and Stranger at the Wedding – local magic blends interestingly with science stolen from Earth in a complicated tale in which Identity Exchange and elements of Technofantasy are added to the usual mix.

BH uses Templates and numerous standard Plot Devices to tell stories which constantly examine their own premises in humane terms. When she writes, as she often does, of Ugly Ducklings, it is with a real and unannealed pain of frustrated aspiration that she imbues them, not the easy consolatory self-identification of Genre Fantasy. But the popularity of High-Fantasy epics in the 1980s left even as prolific a writer as BH rather less popular than she merited; the refusal to skew her work in a more conventional and perhaps remunerative direction echoes the lonely integrity of her protagonists. [RK]

other works: The Quirinal Hill Affair (1983; vt Search the Seven Hills 1987), a historical whodunnit; Ishmael * (1985), Ghost-Walker * (1991) and Crossroad* (1994), all Star Trek ties; Beauty and the Beast * (1989) and Beauty and the Beast: Song of Orpheus * (1990), novelizing the tv series Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990); Star Wars: Children of the Jedi * (1995); Sisters of the Night (anth 1995) with Martin H Greenberg.

Barbara Hambly


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.