The Walls of Air by Barbara Hambly
Frankly, I was on the lower-end of lukewarm about the predecessor to The Walls of Air—The Time of the Dark—for several reasons:
The Dark are too one-dimensionally evil/powerful. There’s little intrigue to be had in watching humanity hopelessly run for their lives.
Rudy’s sudden need to love felt as hollow as his feeling called to magic.
Gil’s stolid selflessness and willingness to sign away free-will to join the guard felt unrealistic and disingenuous to her character.
Still, I kept reading, mostly because I knew that Barbara Hambly was better than The Time of the Dark. There was potential for things to pick up.
And in some ways, the story did pick up. In others, though, it got so much worse.
Rudy and Ingold set off on a nigh-impossible quest to reach the wizards at Quo who have—for unknown reasons—completely isolated themselves. To accomplish this specious task, Ingold and Rudy must walk 1500 miles through the churning apocalypse which, I feel the need to remind you, includes the Dark, a much higher likelihood of bandits due to the ruin of civilization, climate change, and enemy tribes being displaced directly into their path because of all of the above. Also, at the end of their journey is a magical maze of illusion that could be deadly.
As much as Ingold carried The Time of the Dark, I largely disliked this quest for one reason: Rudy.
I don’t buy him. He’s still too perfectly the aloof almost-bad-boy with a sensitive heart of gold just looking for meaning and love. And his lack of set-up continues to undermine my ability to take him seriously. You know what it is? He took on both magic and a love interest so effortlessly and thoughtlessly that it feels like a fad. Any day now he’ll grow bored and wander off.
Also, he’s a coward. Him constantly hanging back and letting Ingold take on every single bad thing that came their way may be realistic, but it isn’t a good look. It also, imho, leads to sub-par pacing. Fight sequences need to be quick. With Rudy standing off watching but not particularly getting involved, he has plenty of time to narrate blow-by-blow action. Sometimes a scuffle lasts pages. Especially when it’s mostly sword-play, it gets boring real quick.
Throughout the quest there are pops of excitement that had me eagerly turning pages. I liked everything about the White Raiders, for example, but most of the book was Rudy and Ingold walking, getting lost, or Rudy watching Ingold fight something.
Back at the keep, Gil and Alde are exploring both the structure of the keep itself and countless old tomes on loan from the church. They seek some bit of knowledge to give them any hope against the Dark.
This is slightly more interesting, but also contains some of the most irksome incongruities The Walls of Air has to offer.
For example: More refugees arrive. They’re initially turned away because there’s no room, but then Alde throws her weight around to gain them admittance. To make room, they move all the food into hastily-constructed structures built outside the keep.
Outside, where no guard will patrol after twilight or before dawn because of fear of the Dark.
Outside, where a freak ice-storm, a falling tree, a mammoth, or any number of other accidents might jeopardize the structure and expose their meager food supplies to scavengers and the elements.
Outside, where starving people driven to desperation would absolutely take a crack at stealing some food despite the threat of the Dark.
Outside, where the Dark, who are said to have their own alien intelligence, gather at night and try to destroy the denizens of the keep. As it’s been said that they learn and grow more sophisticated in their behavior, is it that much of a stretch for them to realize the easiest way to destroy the people is to destroy the grain?
Seriously. The keep is running desperately low on food and Alwir and Alde fear they’ll face starvation come spring. Why are they gambling on where they store their food? Surely there’s some way to keep it inside.
I struggled on this for days. I eventually had to force myself to either move on or quit reading.
I moved on, and Gil and Alde pick up their exploration of the keep. Mapping the floors is slow and tedious because the rooms are built all slapdash and often empty or simply piled high with old, rotting furniture, making it hard to gauge—wait. Huge areas are empty? Then why the fuck was the food moved outside?
I wanted to quit almost as badly as I wanted to understand why or how this obvious incongruity made it into the book. I kept reading and eventually figured out the answer: two subplots that fill in for the lack of an engaging overarching plot involve folks sneaking outside before the gates are closed to get a whack at the food while it’s unguarded.
Which proves my point: banking on fear of the Dark to keep people away from the food stores at night is unbelievably naive and foolish. Considering how shrewd Alwir is about maintaining power, and how suspicious Gil is, and how intuitive Alde is … realistically someone would have realized this would be a problem.
While that is the least-spoilery and simultaneously most egregious example, The Walls of Air is filled with these contrived story-telling conveniences. It is frustrating.
So, if I barely finished The Time of the Dark, and only did so because of Ingold, and Ingold’s ability to shine is now hampered by Rudy’s blandness, then why did I finish The Walls of Air?
About the time that I was railing against their storing food outside, Rudy and Ingold start to explore the concept of the Dark a little more. Likewise, Gil and Minalde are unearthing some of the keep’s secrets. While the villain of the piece is still several times too powerful, at least now my curiosity might get some satisfaction. Because I am curious. Why do the Dark slumber for millennia between terrorizing the earth? How was the keep built? Does any of this connect back to our earth?
I want to know.
It also helps that Gil and Minalde come into better focus. Gil is still strangely dedicated to risking life and limb in the guard, but she’s also not doing outlandish things like volunteering to carry heavy loads of food out of a Dark-infested basement the day after she gets sucked through the portal, so that helps. Her past life as a scholar comes back to her, as well, and this clearly central part of her character affecting how she behaves feels right.
Minalde also shines in her own way as a selfless queen whose biggest flaw is an inability to stand up for herself. It’s a personality pairing that makes a lot of sense and, honestly, it feels too real. Unlike bullshit like Wizenbeak where the evil queen keeps the throne at the expense of the kingdom, I feel like Minalde’s circumstance is much, much more common: a woman who could have all the power she wanted reduced due to her inability to stand up to those close to her.
And Ingold, though I wouldn’t say he shines on his quest, well, at least nothing ruins him for me.
So I have four characters I’m invested in and a handful of questions I’d like answers to. I’m actually in a better spot than I was at the end of The Time of the Dark. So long as I can forget about the stupid food storage.
Cover Art by David B Mattingly: