The Armies of Daylight by Barbara Hambly
I am very sad to say that I did not like this book.
Frankly, this is my own fault. I didn’t particularly care for The Time of the Dark, and that feeling of discontent verging on dislike only grew with The Walls of Air. Yet out of love and devotion to the one-and-only Barbara Hambly, I kept reading. Deep down I knew that The Armies of Daylight wouldn’t solve all the problems I had with the characters, characterization, world, plot structure, pacing […], but I hoped it would offer up something to make me look back on the series with warmth. Instead, when I finished reading The Time of the Dark, I threw it across the room because I was so dissatisfied with … everything.
First, a quick review suitable for those looking to avoid spoilers: if you liked The Time of the Dark and The Walls of Air, you’ll probably be fine with The Armies of Daylight. If, however, there were critical components of previous books that left you dissatisfied, that dissatisfaction will almost certainly intensify. Depending on how significant that feeling is to start with, it might grow unruly.
With that out of the way, my biggest disappointment runs directly from the opening scene to the closing one, so get ready for lots of spoilers.
Okay, so in book one the wizard Ingold must protect the heir to the throne of whatever kingdom from the Dark—essentially invincible monsters that eat humans. To do so, he crosses the void into our world for a night. The Dark show up in California and in Ingold’s haste to return to his world, he accidentally brings two folks along for the ride: Gil, a PhD student, and Rudy, a biker. Over three books, we watch Gil and Rudy strive against the insurmountable odds of this new world. They try to discover the secrets of the Dark so that they might finally be able to fight back. They make friends, enemies, lovers. They get into trouble, they get lost, they fall apart.
Throughout this, the Dark are seeking Ingold relentlessly, though no one knows why. Eventually, they get him and, a stone’s throw from the back cover, Ingold reappears, opens a hole in the void, and ushers the Dark and their herds of human livestock into it. When confronted about wtf just happened, Ingold says that he was sought out by the Dark because—ever since he opened the void to California—they’ve been wanting him to open the void and (for reasons it’d be boring to explain) let them go somewhere else. For lack of a better idea on how to get rid of them, he simply does as they request.
So … nothing outside of the first three-ish chapters matters. Literally none of it affects the outcome whatsoever. Gil and Rudy could have taken up knitting and spent three books outfitting the warriors of the keep with sweaters, and the ending could have stayed roughly the same.
That’s the biggest sin in fiction. The protagonists have to matter. In an ideal world, Rudy’s apprenticeship in magic and Gil’s training as a swordswoman would be an integral part of the resolution of the novel. Ingold can still do the heavy lifting—I don’t need chosen ones who appear and save the day. I just need what they’ve experienced and learned throughout the three-book series to be beneficial. Instead, they stand aside and watch.
It was so deeply unsatisfying that I consider it one of the worst endings in ForFemFan history. Sure, Hambly’s technical skill in writing is still leagues ahead of the average author, but the ending left me just as disgruntled as The Missing Man or Sword Dancer.
Okay, so the grand finale was terrible. But I’ve loved other books with terrible (or utterly baffling) endings. What gives?
Frankly, I don’t care about Rudy or Gil. They’re too perfect and they get what they want too easily. They feel like a first draft of a character before the author really knows them.
Rudy is a cynical and aloof biker. He comes through the void and finds a young woman that he falls in love with almost immediately. He’s the perfect lover. Even when he has reason to be pissed off or sad or churlish about his relationship, he sternly tells himself that whatever is upsetting him is none of his business.
I don’t need a tragic love story of a couple who can never be, but I could use something. Like, Rudy isn’t from this world. He could have struggled with his feelings, trying to suppress or subdue them, because he knows that he’ll be leaving eventually and it’s not fair to his lover to get tangled up in her life. Then, when he eventually lets his guard down and embraces love, I’d be cheering from the stands. Yes! Love wins! Fuck that other world, who needs it! Love is all you need!
Instead he meets woman, he immediately wins her favor by saving her son, and they’re in love from then on. Sure, things get a little more complicated as time goes on, but these complications are all external factors. No matter how the circumstances around them change, their feelings do not.
The exact same thing happens with magic. As soon as Rudy discovers that he’s a mage, he embraces his power and, at the steady pace of a new learner, acquires greater knowledge. Things get a little more complicated due to the hatred of the church, but that’s an external matter that Rudy hardly thinks twice about.
So, if I’m being frank, neither of these facets of Rudy’s life provide any intrigue, interest, or excitement. They’re givens, static entities in his life. They’re also the biggest parts of his life, and most of his POV is dedicated to one or the other. I found myself desperate for anything else—anything at all. I’d normally find the power-hungry chancellor shtick a touch boring, but bring it on. I’d love to see how Alwir is fucking shit up because I cannot deal with any more of Rudy and Alde huddling together talking about how much they love each other and how tragic everything is around them.
Staring opposite Rudy is Gil.
Gil arrives in this dying new world and immediately puts everything she has into helping. She’s selfless beyond selfless, strong beyond strong, driven beyond driven. But why is she willing to give so much of herself? How does she have the inner strength to survive the horrors of this world? What makes her so fucking strong?
I don’t know.
I don’t know if she struggles to be this perfect version of herself or if this comes naturally. I don’t know if she looks around and wonders if there’s something wrong with her that she doesn’t feel more overwhelmed. I don’t know if she ever buckles and thinks, fuck it, let these assholes take care of themselves. I’m a PhD student from California—this isn’t my problem.
If I knew any of these things, then it would make her steel-faced façade interesting. Without any sort of nuance, though, it reduced her moments. She’s the perfect soldier and friend because that’s all she’s capable of being. Gil as anything less doesn’t make any sense given what we know of her.
This puts a loooot of weight on the plot. It needs to supply the intrigue that we’d normally get from the characters themselves. It doesn’t. The Dark are so powerful that the plot is mostly “I hope that we get lucky.” At first that ‘lucky’ is getting to the safety of the keep, then it’s getting to Quo, then it’s uncovering any useful information in the data crystals. There are hardly any hints that leave your brain churning, trying to put together the pieces. There’s just “wait and see.”
The only steady source of intrigue in the series is political. Alwir the chancellor wants to keep his power by any means necessary. The church hates mages, including Rudy and Ingold. The nations to the south kinda-wanna conquer the north and the invasion of the Dark might make that easier. In a story where the main plot is political, this would be fine. But the plot is the survival of humankind against the Dark and, hopefully, the eventual ability of humans to drive the Dark back into hiding. That’s what I want to learn about. Everything else feels artificial, like it exists to fill the gaps. Which, it kinda does, because none of this politicking matters when Ingold sends the Dark to some other world that, hopefully, isn’t inhabited.
Even this complete lack of intrigue could have been okay. I’ve said more than once that my favorite books are those that I finish reading not because I have to know what happens, but because I love the characters and the world so much that they could do literally anything and I’d be happy to watch them.
Part of this could be solved by characters I’m deeply invested in (and I’ve already established why I’m not invested in Rudy and Gil), and the other part of this could be solved by characters so charismatic that they’re larger than life. Think pretty much the entire cast of most of David Edding’s series. You know the spy is going to be sly and witty, the warrior is going to be proud and loyal, the wizard is going to be lovingly cryptic. They’re not nuanced, they have no inner world that we really get a chance at seeing, but by gosh they’re fun and charismatic.
It makes sense that Rudy and Gil aren’t fun. They’re trapped in a dying world, removed from everything they’ve ever known. Making them fun would seem ghoulish. Which is why they need to have some sort of legitimate inner world that we’re allowed to look at.
I have pages of other notes of things I dislike about the book/series. The Ingold-Gil thing comes out of almost nowhere and adds nothing to the series other than a convenient reason for Gil to refuse to go home. Ingold and Rudy knowing that Eldor is leading a suicide attack into the nests of the Dark but not saying a damn word to save their friends/followers feels 1000% out of character, and astonishingly foolish besides, but is awfully convenient for getting Ingold to the perfect place to finally be captured by the Dark. The POV is loose. There are too many characters, most of whom don’t matter at all and just clutter up the space. The quest to Quo was a complete throw-away. I’ll stop, though. In my opinion, the foundation of the book doesn’t work. There’s no point in obsessing about the cracks in the windows or poor interior decorating.
I know lots of people liked this series. I seem to be in the minority, especially as a Barbara Hambly fan. Did other reviews not hint at the issues I had, I’d think I were wrong. Instead, I think maybe I’m simply pickier than average.
Still, I have to admit that seeing how much I don’t like this book/series has made me strangely happy. People really can improve.
Cover Art by David B. Mattingly