Dragonsbane is the first novel in the Winterlands series by Barbara Hambly. Originally released in the 1980s, Dragonsbane has been out of print for a while now, but it was recently re-released as an ebook along with several other books by Hambly. The rest of the books in the Winterlands series are as follows: Dragonshadow, Knight of the Demon Queen, and Dragonstar.
Gareth is on a quest: to find Lord Aversin, the only man alive who has ever successfully slain a dragon. The kingdom Gareth resides in has an unwelcome guest in the shape of a huge, black dragon, and no one has been able to defeat it thus far. Having studied all the ballads dedicated to the great deeds of Lord Aversin, Gareth is confident he will heroically come to their rescue and dispatch the threat to the land.
On the outskirts of Lord Aversin’s land, Gareth meets his mistress, Jenny, a 37-year-old witch who is not particularly extraordinary. Of course, Gareth wants to know all about John, Lord Aversin, and is quite dismayed when Jenny tells him the details of the dragon slaying and dashes his notions of the glory of being a dragonsbane. Instead of foolishly facing the dragon with honor and a sword, John used the method he thought was least likely to get himself killed: a harpoon dipped in poison. Gareth is further disappointed when he meets John for himself and discovers he’s not as lordly as he’d imagined. He’s not handsome or imposing, and he’s standing in the mud next to a pigsty like it’s perfectly normal – because it is normal for him.
After some effort, Gareth eventually manages to convince John it’s in his best interests to help remove the pesky dragon. However, once John and Jenny return to the kingdom with Gareth, they discover the dragon’s not the only threat after meeting the king’s mistress – a beautiful, powerful sorceress who has been creating some mayhem of her own.
While it was a somewhat slow paced book, Dragonsbane managed to pull me in immediately with the way it introduced the characters in the very first chapter. Throughout the novel, they continued to be one of the highlights, along with how Hambly took what felt like a very traditional fantasy story and made it unexpectedly unique. The plot begins with a quest to slay a dragon and stop an evil sorceress, and although the sorceress storyline was fairly typical, the dragon-slaying story was not. The dragon was one of the most interesting characters, and what happened with this part of the plot offered a look at humanity and choices that culminated in a beautifully handled bittersweet ending. Either result of the decision at the end would bring both happiness and sadness, and there was no perfect, correct choice – and this is part of what I loved about the end. The other part was how the meaning of the title changed throughout the course of the story and what it turned out to truly represent. It’s rare that I read a book where the conclusion is the part that really stands out to me, and I think it’s difficult to find endings that are truly done well. Dragonsbane had one of those rare, memorable endings that was part of what made the book so wonderful.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing to recommend the book until the final pages, though, since part of what makes that ending so momentous is the main character, Jenny (as well as the dragon, but since he doesn’t actually play a prominent role until over 50% of the way through I won’t discuss him to avoid spoilers). Jenny is a 37-year-old witch who is not as powerful as she wishes, largely due to the fact that she hasn’t completely given herself over to her studies because of her relationship with John, Lord Aversin. While she doesn’t live with John or their two children in order to pursue magical knowledge, she still devotes enough of her time to them for it to be a hindrance to her magical abilities. By trying to compromise and dividing her attention between love and her magic, Jenny is constantly wondering what might have been. If she’d given up John completely and devoted herself wholeheartedly to learning, would she be the powerful mage she yearns to be?
In contrast, there is the evil sorceress Zyerne, who is everything Jenny could ever dream of being – young, beautiful, and an immensely powerful mage. For the most part, I didn’t find Zyerne a compelling part of the story since she didn’t have any great depth of character, but I think she did serve well as a look at what Jenny may have been able to accomplish had she been willing to completely give up love. Because Jenny is a person who is perfectly capable of jealousy and insecurity, she has to wonder if she could have been more like Zyerne had she just made some different choices in her life. Her vulnerability is part of what makes her such a sympathetic character, and I also liked that the story featured love, but not the oft-seen romance. It was about established, mature love that’s existed for a while, not an exciting new relationship but a more familiar one. It was a nice change to read about a couple who has been together for a while instead of romance filled with significant glances and conversations and wondering when/how the two people would end up together.
Even though there is a lot to admire about Dragonsbane, it’s not a perfect book. The first chapter and the way it sets up the characters – who Jenny and John are and Gareth’s expectations of what a dragonsbane is – was wonderful, but it could be rather slow paced at times, especially since the dragon didn’t actually make an appearance until a little over halfway through. Other than Jenny and the dragon, none of the other characters seemed nearly as notable although John had some interesting qualities. He was a warrior, but a very scholarly one, and I also liked how he didn’t take himself too seriously. When he came to the kingdom and discovered everyone thought he was a hick, he had quite a lot of fun just playing along with that. As mentioned previously, Zyerne also seemed rather one dimensionally evil, although I do think she also demonstrated what putting power before all else could lead to.
On a technical note, there was one point toward the end of the book where I ended up completely confused. There was a paragraph where it made a very abrupt switch, including someone talking who was not actually there at the time. This made me think that I was missing part of the book, and I stopped reading at that point to check my original PDF to make sure something hadn’t gone wrong with the Kindle conversion. After seeing it looked the same and reading on, it appeared it just had been missing some sort of formatting to indicate that this was the start of a new scene and not a continuation of the previous one.
In spite of some slow pacing and a flat villain, Dragonsbane was well worth reading for several reasons. It had a fantastic ending tinged with both joy and sorrow that completely transformed the meaning of dragonsbane. Furthermore, it had a realistic main character with very human weaknesses and dilemmas, and the exploration of the choices she made throughout the story was quite poignant. I’ll definitely be reading more by Barbara Hambly after this novel.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Ebook review copy from the publisher.