Genevieve Cog­man cel­e­brates a clas­sic fan­tasy de­but

SFX - - Contents - By Barbara Ham­bly, 1982

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.

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