The ‘Darwath’ trilogy review
By Duncan Fingarson, Contributor
Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy surprised me. I picked the books up secondhand, drawn mostly by Donato Giancolo’s wonderful cover art, which had a wizard in it. I wasn’t expecting much, but what I got was a very human story about a pair of Californians sucked into a world that is not their own.
Darwath is a parallel world existing in a different universe from Earth. It is accessible through magic, or for the early chapters of the first book, through dreams. The world of Darwath itself is introduced slowly, at first through the dreams of Gil Patterson, who keeps finding herself roaming the streets of Darwath cities at night, and later through explanations by Ingold, the wizard who caught my attention on the cover. Initially Ingold just wants Gil to help him provide a hiding place for the king’s son because the people of Darwath are stuck fighting a losing battle against the Dark. The Dark is a swarm of monsters that resemble the result of tossing a handful of vampires and the collected works of H. P. Lovecraft into a blender.
Things don’t go quite as planned, however. First, Ingold encounters Rudy Solis, the second of our heroes, stranded by car trouble in the same spot Gil had agreed to hide the king’s son. Second, one of the Dark has followed Ingold through to Earth, where a battle ensues. In the aftermath, Ingold is forced to take all of them back to Darwath. Here begins the story proper. Here also begins the author playing with my expectations.
Gil and Rudy are both well-rounded and complex characters, and neither of them end up doing what I expect. Wizard-and-warrior is a pretty standard fantasy setup, especially when you’ve got two people pulled into a world where they have to fight or die. I thought it somewhat natural that Gil the academic would learn magic, and Rudy the biker would be better in a physical fight. However, Gil turns out to kick butt. She’s strong and stubborn, occasionally cold, and good at thinking fast and learning quickly, taking up a sword and rapidly becoming an adept combatant. Rudy, on the other hand, is thoughtful and artistic, and also happens to possess the innate spark required to learn magic. They’re both great characters with interesting character arcs and believable development, backed up by a host of well-developed supporting characters, and just enough internal conflict to go with the external threat of the Dark.
Here as well, the books surprise me. I expected the Dark to take up a lot of metaphorical screen time, but an almost equal amount is given over to the internal schisms of the group. The threat of the Dark is always there in the background somewhere, informing decisions and looming ominously, but a lot of time has been devoted to the power struggles of a couple key players amongst the human side of things, and the cracks that start to appear in their unity caused by the strain of fighting a losing war. There are some truly horrible people amongst the group, and I often found myself hating them far more than the Dark.
Of course, not everything about the books works. They were written in the 1980s, and there are a few small ways they seem dated by that fact. The final ending has a tinge of deus ex machina to it, and one of the romance pairing choices seems a bit strange to me. That said, the handful of flaws isn’t enough to take me out of the books, which I quite enjoyed reading.
If you’re a fan of stories about hope in the face of long odds, you’re interested in books featuring strong female characters, or you just really like wizards, I recommend giving this series a look.