Darkness on His Bones – Barbara Hambly (Netgalley)

I’ve been a tremendous fan of Barbara Hambly since her Star Trek novels in the 80’s. Her characters, whether they’re someone else’s creations like Spock or Catherine Chandler, or her people who appear in only one novel like Marcus or Norah, are valued friends. When they’re characters who have been appearing in her novels since 1988, like the Ashers and Don Simon, they’re practically family.

Darkness on His Bones starts off with one of the family, James Asher, critically wounded, and let me tell you: if as an author you want to create suspense, that’s how to do it. I was tearing through the pages to find out if he was all right – because even knowing that Jamie is one of the primary characters the series centers around, still, it felt like his life was not safe. Realistically I doubt Ms. Hambly would ever kill Jamie off. In the context of the book, he might well have been dying. She sold it; I bought it. She’s a marvelous writer.

In the commentaries for the late lamented Firefly, Joss Whedon talked about how everyone is the hero of his own story. At risk of being the boring repetitive fangurl, one thing I always say about her is held up in this book: every single character – whether it’s one of the Ashers or one of the vampires who looms threateningly to one side but hardly says a word, or Ellen, or the woman mopping the floor, or the magnificent taximan Greuze, or Simon Xavier Christian Morado de la Cadeña-Ysidro – each and every one of them could carry a book on his own, if Ms. Hambly ever got bored and needed a different direction. (I’d love to see a Greuze spin-off.) It is so easy to see each character, named and unnamed, briefly seen or often, as the hero of his own tale, with a life of his own offscreen. I don’t want to make it sound like a cluttered landscape, filled with all these heroes fighting for attention. It isn’t, any more than your last trip to the grocery store was. All those other people in the aisles, the non-speaking role of the person who stole your parking space or cut in line just ahead of you, the teenager who rang up your order and the senior citizen who bagged it – they’re all the heroes of their own story, and however brief their appearance in your story they’re real and vivid. That’s what Ms. Hambly manages to do in her worlds.

Oh, and the writing. “Dr Théodule, stooped, white-haired, and resembling nothing so much as a wizard who has attempted to transform himself into a goat and had the spell fail halfway.” It’s funny, and unusual, and – well, I can certainly see him. “‘If you faint from inanition I shall carry you to the curb and leave you there,’ Ysidro had told her last night”. How very Ysidro. “Morning sunlight buttered the Avenue du Maine”. So beautiful.

Every word pulls its weight, fits into its place as if that place had been built for it when the universe formed. The saying I usually use as a rod to beat poor writers with is, here, a paean: “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” Zeus’s got nothing on Barbara Hambly for lightning.

All right, I’m getting a little worshipful here. I can’t help it. Put it this way: given a choice between reading 99% of anything else out there and Barbara Hambly, I will, given free will, always opt for Ms. Hambly. Always.

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