Genevieve Cogman celebrates a classic fantasy debut
Genevieve Cogman shines some light on The Time Of The Dark.
“Three thousand years is a long time, Gil. You’re a historian – can you tell me, with any accuracy, what happened three thousand years ago?” When I was 10 or 11 years old, I read a book review column in White Dwarf magazine that mentioned a novel by Barbara Hambly, where the woman becomes a sword-wielding warrior and the man became a wizard. This was 36 years ago, when that wasn’t as frequent a character configuration as it is now.
But when I actually read the book, it was so much more than that.
Two people from our world – a history graduate student and an airbrush painter and mechanic – try to help a wizard escaping with a baby, and find themselves swept into a crumbling kingdom under siege from inhuman creatures that were last heard of thousands of years ago. Now the Dark is back, the King is dead, the standing armies are broken, the cities are falling apart, and the best hope is to retreat to an ancient fortress that dates back to... well, the last time the Dark attacked. Our heroes are trapped in the middle of it, and find themselves contributing in unexpected ways.
This is Barbara Hambly’s first fantasy novel, and the beginning of her Darwath series (two more books complete the trilogy, then another two standalones and multiple short stories). It’s not “grimdark”, though the author explores the ramifications of power bases collapsing and central authority falling apart; struggles for authority; struggles to save knowledge; history; superstition; fear; and lots of bad weather.
Nothing in the book is monotone. The Church dislikes wizards, but has its own interior factions, and may be one of the only remaining sources of knowledge of the Time Before. The Chancellor has every reason to try to keep things together rather than allowing the kingdom to fall into groups of petty warlords or be taken over by the Southern Empire – whatever it may cost. The wizards themselves are just as petty, venal and easily swayed as anyone else. The only one-note faction in the book is the mysterious Dark, who want nothing more than to kill all humans and destroy the Realm... or so it seems.
To me, the real glory of this book is that the ultimate solution to the rising Dark came through research into what had happened before and why it was happening again. One of the protagonists is a history student, and that becomes deeply relevant. And it wasn’t just convenient “solving an ancient riddle” or “discovering the hiding place of an artefact” – it was rigorous research ranging from aerial photography techniques to genetically recorded memories and the magical equivalent of videotapes, the Church’s documentation, the architecture of the ancient Keep itself...
While Hambly’s writing has improved over the last 30 years, The Time Of The Dark has everything that I enjoy from her books. Everyone is human; everyone has reasons for what they do; and even in a world that’s falling apart, with bad weather and worse politics and a Lovecraftian threat, efforts can produce results, love is not wasted and communication is the most powerful weapon of all.
Also, the airbrush painter would-be-wizard is the only character who actually knows how to change nappies.
The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman is out now from Pan Macmillan.