So, it was tough to pick who to feature this week, because I’ve had to examine what I think qualifies as a hidden gem. First, and most obviously, it has to be a book or series I really like. This could mean something that is one of my all-time favourites, or something that came along and changed the way I read fantasy, or just something fun. The definition of “hidden” is a bit trickier, because my perception might be off, but I suppose I’m just looking for books that I don’t hear discussed very often, or at all.
Like last week, I’m going back in time to the heyday of Big Epic series, the days when people were reading Brooks, Eddings, Feist, Williams, and Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. At least, that’s what I always hear people were reading. They were also reading Kerr, Rawn, Moon, Bradley, Lackey, and, of course, the subject of today’s blog – but I don’t hear so much about that.
I’m going to feature the author this time, rather than a series of books, because it’s hard for me to explain why Barbara Hambly is so awesome without looking across her body of fantasy work. I haven’t read anywhere near all of it – she’s hugely prolific, and in multiple genres, too – but everything I have read – though it often seems straightforward on the surface – ventures off the beaten path, subverting tropes at a time when most were still embracing them.
Take her best-known series, the portal fantasy Darwath Trilogy. The start is memorable but fairly standard, with a Gandalf-y wizard showing up to take our heroine into a different world, which she must help save. Unlike Narnia et al. however, our hero is no callow kid, but a graduate student who knows herself and her stuff. And the peril they face is no one-dimensional domination-bent dark lord, but alien creatures of mindless, relentless horror. The way they adapt to the invasion of the Dark, combating opposition among their supposed allies as well, creates moments of claustrophobic terror and bleak despair. Though still following a fairly standard format, the trilogy is both much darker and more mature than it would seem on the surface, just enough askew from the staid expectations to make it interesting and rewarding.
And this is what Hambly does with most of her books, as far as I can tell. Along with being equally well-written, the other two I’ve read certainly perform a similar trick on well-worn tropes. In Dragonsbane, a dragonslayer and his partner are called upon to exterminate a scaly pest, but this is no “St. George and Smaug” act. Again, the characters are not your typical heroes or villains – something we are used to know, but was much more groundbreaking back then – and the plot soon goes in unexpected directions.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn is perhaps not so subtle, taking a familiar-sounding Magnificent Samurai plot and making it all about the women. Again, this was more radical at the time, but that twist is only the beginning. In Hambly’s more grown-up fantasy worlds, nothing is easy or straightforward, even for legendary mercenaries. Where you might normally have a classic training montage leading to a great victory, Hambly goes into all the realistic difficulties of turning housewives into killers and then pulling off a coup.
So, an obvious question is, have they aged well? I think so, because Hambly’s ahead-of-her time unpredictability has created unique works that are neither the straightforward trope-fests of some of her contemporaries, nor the jaded inversions we have today (which are starting to wear their own grooves, lets be fair). If you are looking for infallible heroes and unambigiuos endings, these may not be for you, but if you want proof that this was not just the age of the Epic-by-numbers, these are it.
And you don’t have to take my world alone for it, because Hambly comes up all the time when authors are asked about their inspirations, especially underappreciated or underrated ones. In fact, she so often mentioned as underrated that I’m not sure she is anymore! She certainly seems to be something of an author’s author, and that can’t be a bad thing.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell the story of how I discovered about these hidden gems. Well, like Hagrid’s dragon egg, they were handed to me in a pub by a mysterious stranger – not with any ulterior motive that I know about, but with equally wonderful results. It’s not every day you receive such an unexpected treasure trove, and I hope I’ve passed on some of my own good fortune in writing this.