RogerBW's Blog

Sisters of the Raven, Barbara Hambly 14 July 2014

As wizards, hitherto exclusively male, gradually lose their magical power, some women discover that they are gaining it.

The setting is a fantasied-up version of what feels a lot like Egypt, though there's a bit of Persia and a geisha-like tradition lifted from classical Japan. But of course the themes, primarily that men are no longer Special, are pretty obvious, and sometimes rather clumsily handled.

One cannot entirely escape a feeling that Hambly's shaken up her usual box of tricks and allowed the contents to land in slightly different places: we have the women building their own organisation when the male one has failed, just as in The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and one of the principals of it is a concubine. We have a despised class of wizards, and a Church of No Redeeming Virtues┬╣, just as in The Time of the Dark, The Silent Tower and The Rainbow Abyss; and wizards come in multiple squabbling orders, as in the last of those. And we have a detective story in a society that hasn't invented detectives, and a slave class who are clearly smarter than their owners realise, as in A Free Man of Color, though this time the slaves really are a different species.

┬╣ a church that exists purely to be nasty to the good guys, and which doesn't seem to offer any spiritual comfort to its followers. While there are historical examples, they tend to keep at least the trappings of a real religion alongside the hatred.

The major innovation compared with Hambly's previous work is that this time the mages aren't the only despised class; in this society, women are essentially the property of men, not even having personal names (instead being called things like Cattail Woman, Melon Girl, or Red Silk Lady). Yes, there are some women who have positions of strictly limited power, but it's clearly One of Those Societies, and it all ends up thudding a bit.

There are two basic plots going on, which may or may not end up being the same plot: someone is attacking, kidnapping, and possibly killing female magicians, and the aforesaid Church is stirring up trouble. In the background, the vital rains are not coming, in spite of all that the mages can do.

It's a competently-written book, but the pacing is pretty slow; it takes nearly five hundred pages to tell a story that the early Hambly could have managed in 250-350, and while I have no objection to long descriptive passages I do think it's possible to overdo it. Some of the characters aren't bad, but there are perhaps slightly too many of them, particularly on the political side; even our two major viewpoint characters, a young woman who's being trained as a mage and the aforesaid concubine, are curiously blank and unengaging.

So it's certainly not Hambly at her best. It's not terrible, and I don't regret having read it, but I can't see this drawing in a lot of new readers unless they're specifically looking for stories of misogyny and the early stirrings of a societal revolution.

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