The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly
I am a self-proclaimed Barbara Hambly fan-girl. Hell, the whole reason this blog exists is because of Barbara Hambly and The Windrose Chronicles.
Despite this fact, I have not even come close to reading all there is of Barbara Hambly. This is in part because she’s prolific (and has a ton of books out there) and because I like to save her work for special occasions.
Recently I went on a trip to Japan and decided that it was the perfect time to pack a few books that I was saving for a special occasion. Naturally, I packed a Barbara Hambly book: The Time of the Dark.
Of all the Barbara Hambly books I own (but haven’t yet read), I was most excited about this one. The cover—a somber looking mage holding a beer and eating chips in a 1980s kitchen—is the perfect balance of kitsch and earnestness. Better yet, it is reminiscent of my favorite series of hers, The Windrose Chronicles, which also involves world-hopping magicians.
So it was with glee when I finally tucked into The Time of the Dark, late at night in the rooftop onsen of the impeccable Oniyama hotel in Beppu, Japan.
It starts hard. A woman is dreaming a horrible dream thick with impending doom. As the moments pass, she begins to feel like it’s not a dream at all—it’s a glimpse elsewhere.
By day this woman is Gil, a serious academic on the PhD track who has dedicated her entire life to her passion for scholarship and medieval history.
By night, well, she keeps dreaming, though the understanding that her dreams are real grows in certainty until Ingold—a man from her dreams—appears, flesh and blood, in her living room.
He confirms that her dreams were in fact quite real and explains that in his world they’re under siege from a powerful primordial enemy: the Dark Ones. He asks her help. This is where things could have gotten dicey, but Ingold understands her limitations and merely asks where nearby he can hunker down for a few days while he bides his time. Gil points him in a direction and offers to deliver supplies.
Rudy is a biker and a drifter, though he doesn’t put much stock in the hard-assed persona of his peers. Deep down he’s an artist, hoping one day to make money from something other than painting flames on the sides of trucks. After a beer-run gone wrong he ends up at the hiding spot Gil suggests for Ingold.
Invariably something goes wrong, and Rudy, Gil, and Ingold all end up back in Ingold’s world. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Ingold could merely shuttle Rudy and Gil back to Earth, but for reasons I don’t care to give away, he cannot. Our protagonists have to stick around as this surprising new world crumples under the onslaught of the Dark.
This is essentially the entirety of the over-arching plot. Rudy and Gil want to go home but (at least for the time being) cannot, and so they must adapt to their new world even as it’s destroyed. Ingold, in addition to trying to send Rudy and Gil home, has his own plot: he must keep the heir to the throne safe.
If I’m being honest—and I hope you realize that I’m always honest if I’m willing to say this about a book written by my favorite author—the plot is thin. The Dark Ones are an unknown evil. Though not invincible, they’re quite hard to kill, spray acid when they are killed, and exist in such high numbers that killing them doesn’t feel like a triumph. For the entirety of the story the characters are running for their lives and getting killed off every step of the way.
The lack of intrigue is a bummer from a story-telling perspective and the heaviness of the lack of apparent hope made The Time of the Dark a bit of a hard read.
Barbara Hambly is unbelievable with her characterization, though, so that is where I had hoped—expected, even—for things to turn around. She once made an entirely unrepentant vampire sympathetic! In The Time of the Dark we’ve got a badass yet kindly old wizard and two fishes out of water. I genuinely thought an emotional plot would fill in the gaps.
Sadly, I was wrong. Gil and Rudy do adapt, and we see them adapting, but it felt empty to me. We never really see Gil in her own world, so I don’t know if her volunteering for a difficult job on, like, her second day in this crazy new world is within her character, a coping mechanism, or a sure sign that something new has been shaken loose in her.
And, more than that, Gil is (dare I say it?) a little too strong. Not in the “I’m going to fight everyone all the time” way, but in the seriously, no one has a well that deep to give from way.
Seriously. She’s sucked from her world, her carefully honed life that she says is all she’s ever wanted, and is put somewhere else and told “eh, we might not be able to get you back.” If that place were on the Earth as we know it, it would still be a devastating blow, but this is so much worse. One person alone can send her home, and, well, they’re in a world where the average life expectancy doesn’t stretch far into the future. To her it would seem very likely that she’s stuck, stranded forever in this post-apocalyptic hellscape of a world she doesn’t even understand—if she survives. And again, not many people are surviving.
On top of the mental burden of her accidental transportation, there’s the physical. Gil is an American woman, born and raised in California by a rich family. She’s a PhD student. She had probably never experienced true hunger, or, hell, even food insecurity. She’d probably never been cold for days on end. She’d probably never been denied even a modicum of privacy. She’d probably never been put in an ethical position where her actions would determine whether someone lives or dies. She’d probably never seen anyone killed or die. She’d almost certainly never walked past bloating, rotting corpses and bloody, sinuous tangles of bone.
Of course, in a dying medieval world, she experiences all of these things.
I’m not saying that no one would survive, but I sincerely doubt anyone would survive as well as Gil did. Because she just sort of ... rolls with the punches. She gets harder, colder, for sure, but I never get any sort of hint that she’s mentally strained. Physically, sure. She’s constantly exhausted, constantly hungry, constantly cold. But she never so much as flinches mentally. I get that simply existing without thought is a coping mechanism, but I would expect that coping mechanism to kick in after a few days when instinctively her body realizes that it’s either shut down emotionally or die.
Rudy isn’t as strong as Gil. At least, he doesn’t give endlessly and selflessly past the point of reason. He is more prone to cracking under the strain of the world, but, again, only physically. When he’s too cold, too hungry, too tired, he flounders. Otherwise, he’s almost ... jovial? It’s like he’s just on another road-trip rather than thrust into the death throws of a civilization incomprehensibly removed from his life.
They’re not awful characters by any means. If the plot had intrigue that drew me on, they’d probably be entirely serviceable. But the plot didn’t draw me on, so I needed characters that I loved, that I felt invested in, that seemed so real I yearned for their success and feared for their failure. Largely in part to their blase reaction to world-swapping, though, Gil and Rudy didn’t scratch that itch.
In the end, I think Barbara Hambly realized her mistake and tried to give Gil and Rudy each an emotional arc, but I don’t think there was nearly enough setup for their closure to feel authentic.
So neither the plot not the protagonists really intrigued me, yet I finished the book. As my Globalization & Development professor used to say “Why dat?”
The simple answer is that beautiful bastard on the cover: Ingold. In many ways he’s a trope—the kindhearted but hard-as-nails misunderstood outcast wizard who will throw everything he has away to save the people who disparage him—but, well, who doesn’t love that trope? And though Ingold is very trope-y, I’d argue that he’s the most developed character in the book. I won’t spoil the details, because, in my opinion, good characterization is all in the details, but there are delightful hints that Ingold is more than what we see.
Oddly, some tertiary characters that don’t even get much screen time grabbed my attention, as well. The arch-bishop Govannin is one badass yet awful lady. Much like an old Disney villain (think Ursula or Maleficent), she intrigued me. I wanted to see more of her; learn her angle. That’s the funny thing—Govannin definitely has a personal plot, because all she wants is power. With civilization collapsing, it might even give her room to grab more power—so long as she doesn’t overreach and cause gross instability that’ll get her killed. We rarely saw her, but damn, I was left wanting more.
So in the end, I liked, but didn’t love, The Time of the Dark. At the same time, though, it was Barbara Hambly’s first novel. A lot of these issues feel like first-book issues. It also has a decent amount of similarities to The Windrose Chronicles in terms of magic and world. Without it, would The Windrose Chronicles would be half as perfect?
Hm, maybe I love The Time of the Dark it after all.