Mab Morris takes us on another retrospective of classic fantasy in the form of Barbara Hambly’s DARWATH trilogy, first published in 1982.
I can no longer look at storm clouds the same way since I first read the Darwath Trilogy in the 1980s. Turbulent clouds, rolling black beneath grey; unfurling dark downdrafts reaching towards the ground, towards me, becoming black with the threat of a storm. I always wonder if this is where Barbara Hambly got the idea for the Dark in her Darwath books. They also float silently in the sky at night until they reach for their prey with tentacles and death.
I rather like storms, but when I see those long arms of a particularly black cloud, I cannot but help shiver. A quote I find in Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance, by J.G. Ballard describes this: “The dream worlds…invented by the writer of fantasy are external equivalents of the inner world of the psyche…” Darwath, and its setting both similar and strange to our own, certainly fits that bill, especially with the near nightly threat of death by the silent Dark obscuring the night sky.
It is a story about unsettled people, forced out of their comfort zone. Barbara Hambly doesn’t stop with the ominous Dark. She sends two Californians into the frigid winter of Darwath, and the beginning of an ice age. More than that, they are placed into a culture that might be familiar to one of them—and both recognize constellations—but it is completely different from anything they’ve ever really known. It is threatening, and more than a little challenging, just the way a great fantasy story ought to be.
A medieval scholar, Gil Patterson, and a biker body shop painter, Rudy Solis, are completely out of their depth. They are guided and guarded by the wizard Ingold Inglorian, who is desperate to save his new friends and return them to California. Ultimately, he cannot, or he threatens our world with the dangers of the Dark. These are only a few of the obstacles all three—and all the people of the realm of Darwath—must face.
It is Gil’s obsession with research that shows why the Dark has risen. It is Rudy’s innate curiosity and mechanical sense that helps find and fix the antique weaponry that gives them a hope of defeating their common foe.
Gil Patterson becomes a Guard, training with swords as obsessively as she’d have researched some obscure historical reference, and Rudy discovers his power as a wizard.
These characters become so real I want to meet them. I’d love to have long conversations with Gil about history in some coffee shop. More because of her training, I’d love to introduce her to writer Claire Ryan, so we could all share in our interest in sword fighting. I already know others I’d love to see her spar with.
Rudy is someone I’d love to take long hikes with, discuss art with, and just be silent with in the woods, inspired by his nascent wizardry. I feel I’d learn so much of our world, and Darwath, even without any magic, that I would—and actually do—look at the world with a happier eye, and with that same astonished love of the landscape.
Why is this important? That I think of them in terms of people I could meet? Because they’re written so well, that they are real. More real than the writer in ways; I forget that she might be someone I can meet. It’s Gil, and Rudy, and even Ingold I’d like to meet. They are the ones who draw me into the story, into a landscape so real that I might be able to find my way in it. Deep, rich characters, vibrant—if threatening—landscape, and a narrative and plot just as compelling.
I’d love to go there, but only after they defeat the Dark. I’ll read these books till they finally fall apart. Tape can only go so far. I will, of course, always make sure these titles are on my shelves. Till then, I’ll watch some storms from my porch, and batten down the hatches for others.