It’s not fair. It’s not fair to other writers I’ll read after this book – Barbara Hambly is going to make most of them look bad, and I feel sorry for them. It’s also not fair to me as the reader to set the bar this high, so that I am perpetually a little dissatisfied with almost everything else. We won’t even get into what she does to my own writing and opinion thereof.
This is the first time I’m writing a second review of a book. I reread BofRG for pure pleasure over two years ago, and wrote a brief paean to it on my blog. I remembered a great deal for this reread, but it didn’t impair my pure pleasure. The only thing that did that was a less-than-perfect Kindle edition, in which a couple of “th”‘s transmuted into “m”‘s and line breaks and skipped lines were erratic. (Conversations often took place in one paragraph without correct breaks to indicate new speakers.) And that’s not enough to make me think about knocking off a star. (I’m getting used to cranky editions, sadly.) (One odd thing: the book description says “This ebook features an illustrated biography of Barbara Hambly, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.” Not my copy…)
The book: Some few months ago, the great American silent film actress Chrysanda Flamande swooped in and rescued her brother’s British widow Norah from a life of silent desperation. This was partly an action of generosity – Norah was in a genuinely bad place – but also an act born of self-centeredness: Chrysanda, known to everyone who knows her as Christine, wanted to buy some Pekingese and the breeder wasn’t comfortable with her breezy plans for their care, and Norah would suit admirably as dog wrangler. “Everything Christine did was fifty percent show, but the other fifty percent, Norah reflected, was pure gold.”
Change the percentages and the same could be applied to the book: maybe 2% pure show, in the presentation through the mad B-movie title and original paperback cover art, and the rest pure gold. (I don’t much like the new cover; the necklace is utterly wrong. Opals, people – though the Open Road insignia does fit into the image rather neatly, whether it was intentional or not.) I said in my original review that this might well be my favorite book by Barbara Hambly – which is saying something – and I stand by that.
The evil is well-drawn – too well, perhaps, for peace of mind. It’s what Barbara Hambly does best, that unique brand of dear-God-what-was-that-noise menace escalating to there’s-no-way-we’re-surviving-this danger. The malevolence her heroes strive against is big, and canny, and powerful – so powerful. And inescapable.
Characterization is extraordinary. What Barbara Hambly does best is the slightly gawky, socially awkward, quietly intelligent character. Here it’s Norah, who is bemused by the Oz she has been lofted into by her whirlwind sister-in-law, and is thrown into a roil of emotions by unexpected love in the midst of even more unexpected Gothic danger. The pain of her past is heartbreakingly real, and even more heartbreaking when it is dragged into the present. That aforementioned whirlwind, Christine, could very easily (in other hands) have been a cliché of superficiality, all hair and makeup and frou-frou, a steel lily of a gold-digger. She shouldn’t be a sympathetic character. But she is, deeply – she inspires devotion in her dogs and a string of men and millions of adoring fans, and in her sister-in-law, and in an elderly Chinese man trying to help her, and, in the end, in the reader. She’s terrific. Charlie Sandringham doesn’t have a huge role, but it is a very, very effective one, three-dimensional and believable. In fact, all of the “bit players” are very, very effective – I think I wrote the first time I blathered about this book that Barbara Hambly takes to heart what Joss Whedon said about Jayne, and in fact all characters: he is the hero of his own story. Any one of the characters mentioned in the pages of a book by Barbara Hambly could, had she the time and inclination, be expanded into his or her own adventure. (There’s a fan-fic challenge…) Shang Ko is a worthy member of the guild of elderly wizards in Ms. Hambly’s work, could certainly support several volumes on his life story alone. Alex is … Alex could well be the man of my dreams, but I think I’ve probably thought that about half of Ms. Hambly’s male characters. When Norah asks him “What did he offer you?” the question goes unanswered, and the evasion hurts because his pain is obvious.
These are the people who need to win the fight, who almost don’t realize there is a fight simply because they’re realistically so busy with their lives, and Ms. Hambly always sets it up so that the reader wants to find a sword or spellbook or baseball bat and help them win – the sort of feeling you find in great young adult fiction, in a book for grown-ups. (The only reason I think I’d hesitate to say this was suitable for young adults would be the depth of evil in the Rat God, creepy as hell … but then again I have this fuddy-duddy feeling that teenagers these days are reading things that would have had me sleeping with six teddy bears and all the lights on, AND the dog.)
Oh, the dogs. I talked about them in my original review, but I have to do it again. Chang Ming, Buttercreme, and Black Jasmine, Christine’s three Pekingese, are stronger characters without saying a single word than perhaps four-fifths of all the other characters in fiction. (Not an random number, that; I’m serious.) Ms. Hambly knows dogs, and she knows these dogs – Pekingese are different, and she knows, intimately, just how. She knows how walking more than one dog invariably means crossed leashes, and the politics of the supper dish. She knows how to show a very distinct personality for each dog without in any way anthropomorphizing them. (Deifying, maybe a little, but that’s in keeping.) I never wanted a Peke until I read this book. Now I want one – and I want to adopt one with only one eye.
As far as Norah knew, Chang Ming would no more have tried to bite her than he’d have stolen a car.
What Barbara Hambly does best is description. The dogs are as unique as they are in part because she worked in wonderful word-pictures of them throughout the book. “That peculiarly businesslike Pekingese toddle, fur flouncing, as of to say Places to go. Things to do.” I’ve seen Pekes in dog shows – that is perfect phrasing. I will remember the image of Alex’s curly red hair and beard and glasses and humor, Christine’s tousled black-haired gorgeousness and steel lily strength, Norah’s height and wryness and brown-sugar hair long after I’ve forgotten most books’ characters. Her mention of the Chinese gentleman’s “bartered blue coat” uses a lovely economy of words to say everything necessary about that coat, and a good bit about the gentleman.
And her settings are superb, from the mundane:
Alex Mindelbaum removed his glasses and polished them with a paper napkin from the cheap tin holder at one end of the much-stained and cigarette-burned pine table.
(I don’t know why that seems so perfect to me) … to the sublimely ridiculous:
The house Frank Brown had bought for Christine was in the Spanish style, backed against the sharp rise of the hill and climbing up it, a minor fairy tale of pink-washed turrets, pocket-handkerchief terraces, and balconies no broader than a lace table runner. Among its Mediterranean arches and heavy, darkly carved beams the furniture looked wildly incongruous, a combination of modernist enameled sinuosity – purchased by Frank Brown – and a gaudy clutter of Chinese lamps, vases, lacquered Oriental cabinets that lent primitive splashes of cinnabar, gold, and blue to the smooth scheme of black and cream silk.
The setting is always sensual and alive and memorable. This is a glorious evocation of 1927 Hollywood, and it makes me want to go rent a Valentino movie. (What I really want to see is Kiss of Darkness, heaven help me.) The glamour of a Chrysanda Flamande shoot, with a slapstick comedy filming on the other side of a thin partition; Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford visible along the edges like constellations (not just stars personified) (and I want to thank Ms. Hambly for mentioning the Fatty Arbuckle scandal without an “As you know, Jane” moment); the scrub and coyotes surrounding new construction, and the sites used almost exclusively by film crews – it all adds up to a milieu as alien and yet clearly envisaged as Darwath.
Of course, what Barbara Hambly does best is vivid metaphor and simile. Only Robin McKinley holds a candle to her in my experience.
…”The music had ceased. Alex walked over to the gramophone, wound it up again, and put on more blues, a woman singing this time, gay and sad at once, like a stranded angel who had traded holiness for humanity but remembered what it used to be like to know God.” (I want to know who she was thinking of when she wrote that. And then I want to go straight to iTunes.)
…”a rolling fur ball like three wigs fighting, rufous, ivory, and black”…
…”a feathered slipper lay like a killed bird in the middle of the floor”…
… “the Laocöon of sequins and tweed” …
(I cited that one in the original review as well, because – come on. The Laocöon. Seriously.)
What Barbara Hambly does best is, simply, writing. The changes in how Christine’s co-star Blake Fallon are described are extremely significant yet subtle, extremely creepy when you know what’s going on. The vital element of the necklace is introduced on the very first page, and carefully, masterfully inserted into the narrative flow so that the reader is aware of it without necessarily even realizing it; it is tied in with the Pekes and even the incongruous house, and overall builds a solid foundation for a wild story. Back story and explanation is worked through the narrative seamlessly – everything the reader needs is there, when it’s needed, apparently (though certainly not literally) effortlessly.
The wilder elements of the story – scoffed at by minor characters overhearing the story – become part of the fight: Shang Ko knows his race and that story are against him, but he has to try anyway and do what he can despite the others’ disbelief. Everything in his past has led up to this fight, and he has no choice – and neither does Christine. And because she loves Christine, neither does Nora. And because he loves Nora, neither does Alex. In the end, this becomes a story about courage and pain – beyond the sheer bravery needed to fight the evil, there is Shang Ko’s dogged indefatigability despite the damage he has suffered; the dogs’ failure to recognize that they are more bite-sized than lion-sized; Norah’s brittle courage in simply putting one foot in front of the other, and then in allowing herself to think about a future; Alex’s patient silence about a painful past and willingness to let others remain silent about their own; the fragile, flamboyant shell over Christine’s fundamental loneliness. It’s a story about what love can do – not the way that usually comes off, the common run of twoo-wuv drivel, but all the varieties of love, which really does vincit omnia. And that really is what Barbara Hambly does best.
I do love this book.
Videos, biographical info, and links to other Open Road editions of others among Ms. Hambly’s books are at Open Road Media.