Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: Barbara Hambly's Those Who Hunt the Night

Several of Barbara Hambly's novels have been released in eBook format recently; and I didn't hesitate to offer to review a couple in exchange for a free copy. I haven't read any of Hambly's novels, but I've been hearing about them for years, so I was excited to have a reason to put them onto my official to-do list.

Those Who Hunt the Night is the story of Oxford don James Asher, a one-time player in the Great Game (can you ever really leave?); and the circumstances that lead to his being coerced to investigate a series of murders among the vampire population of London in 1907. I say coerced because Asher is no paranormal enthusiast; he has to be convinced by Don Simon Ysidro, the vampire who is certain that only a human can help -- and who does not scruple to threaten Asher's wife Lydia, in order to provide motivation.

Certain aspects of this novel are exactly what you would expect: Don Simon is elegant and arrogant; Asher is thoughtful and poised as befits a member of Oxford's New College; his wife Lydia is courageous and intelligent and beautiful.

But Barbara Hambly is not a lazy writer, and so she doesn't stop with what you would expect. I especially appreciated how much thought had gone into the complexity of vampire society, mores, and existence -- and how important the worldbuilding was to the central mystery itself. I have problems with authors who characterize all vampires as arrogant and predatory; problems, too, with authors who are content to characterize all vampires as old and world-weary just to dazzle readers with the prospect of a 926-year-old being whose perspective we can barely imagine. I have never thought as much about vampires, and what questions might arise from their existence as I did while reading Those Who Hunt the Night, and last night I went to bed shuddering at the scenario that had been presented.

Truly, I can't remember the last time I actually contemplated vampires as frightening, rather than dark/tortured/sexy.

I found James Asher, the chief protagonist, a little dull in comparison. He's very appealing in that he's intelligent and capable without being an alpha male, and that his affection, respect, and admiration for his wife Lydia are an important part of his characterization, rather than just trimmings. He has a backstory that I'd like to know more about (maybe it will be explored in the other two James Asher books?), but which doesn't surprise me. Hambly is careful, I think, to write him so as to be appealing, but to not make him so progressive as to be terribly anachronistic.

Lydia Asher is more interesting -- though really, she and her husband are both secondary to the details of the vampires. I didn't mind that at all, given that the vampire plot was so interesting. What we learn about Lydia is integral to the main mystery plot, and I had enough of an introduction to her to want me read about her in more books. She is somewhat myopic, and I was delighted that the novel takes into account the stigma against wearing spectacles in the early 20th century; also that her choice to study medicine (and the controversy that such a choice entails for a woman) is treated frankly, and without being overdramatized as a narrative of Enlightenment For Teh Wimminz.

In short, Those Who Hunt the Night is that rare phenomenon: a cracking great mystery which you can enjoy without having to bite your tongue at thoughtless writing, or social hierarchies that make you wince in displeasure.

And this is an especially great time for it to be reborn as an e-book -- it's the perfect story to read if you're playing Echo Bazaar -- in fact, as I was reading it, I thought that it could well have been part of the inspiration for Fallen London, since the atmospheres in the game and novel are wonderfully congenial.

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