"Sisters of the Raven"
(Reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer SEP 8, 2002)"She smelled her attacker the moment before he struck. As she came down the dark unrailed stair from the terrace into the black seam between the northern wall and the novices' quarters, she felt --- she didn't know why --- as if someone called to her in a language she didn't understand. Then, in the second before hands grabbed her out of the dark, she thought, The boys are here after all."
In the Yellow City in the Realm of the Seven Lakes, magic is dying. At least, that's what they say, but in truth, the magic has only died out in the men who used to wield it, and is now showing up in women. Women like Raeshaldis, the only female to ever be admitted to the College of the Sun Wizards, where she is the victim of hate and resentment. Women like The Summer Concubine, the beloved of King Oryn, one of the few men who accept the new power. Now these women, these sisters of the Raven, must join together. Someone is murdering women who do magic, and the prophet of the god Nebekht is stirring the people against them even more, and against the Sun Mages who cannot call the rains, and against the king for harboring them. In a city tense with the need for rain, where the water bosses are able to charge extravagant amounts of money for a bucket of muddy liquid, it will take very little to push the people over the edge.
The setting of this book is very real. One can recognize bits of culture from countries of our own earth. The Djinni, mysterious and beautiful creatures of magic who wander the desert, bespeaks of Arabian lore, while the Blossom houses where young women are taught all manner of arts to make them suitable wives, concubines and prostitutes reminds one of the Geishas of Japan. It makes the setting feel incredibly exotic, especially where magic is added in, like golden threads through the prose.
It may be a beautiful world, but it is terrifically flawed. The women are considered property. Most of them don't even get to choose their own names, their husbands or their fathers choose for them. Their names are things like Foxfire Girl and Corn Tassel Woman...sometimes in the poorer families, daughters are numbered, not named, and the servants are often called Flower. Also, the people of this land have enslaved the teyn, creatures who, while capable of walking on their hind legs and speaking if a human asks them something (but never to each other) seem to be simple, even dumb. It doesn't seem that their owners have ever really considered that perhaps their intelligence is so alien that they can't reason with humans, but that doesn't mean it is not there. The Summer Concubine finds herself unsure about the use of her magic in the service of her love. She is devoted to him and will usually do anything he requires, but as a woman in this world, she can empathize with the teyn's plight.
It's a startling and sad point to the story to have a character such as Oryn, who is really intelligent, generous and sensitive, yet he allows this to continue. He's the only exception when it comes to the teyn, for he wonders about them, about what they think and speaks kindly to them. I don't think that he sees that he has a choice...he is not precisely an all powerful king, he acts more like a diplomat, and he does what he feels he has to do to help his people. He is also very devoted to The Summer Concubine, and though it seems that he could have more women, or that he should put her aside for convention's sake, he keeps her, and values her mind as well as her heart.
I speak of this setting because in some ways it's the crucible that holds all the other elements together. It colors the aspects of the murder mystery, which must be solved before the killer takes another one of the sisters, the magic, which the very possession of creates a sore point between the sexes, and the types of fantastical creatures that populate this world. Perhaps The Summer Concubine and Oryn's worries about what to do about the teyn are not crucial to what happens in the story, but it flavors the piece, giving it and the characters a realism that contrast harshly with the fantasy. Some of these problems, just like our own real problems in life, are not resolved so much as dealt with.
This story is about more than just magic and adventure. It is about how hatred and resentment can build, how the loss of something dear can drive someone to heartless and terrible deeds. A book such as this one could fit on more than one genre shelf, for while it delivers an excellent fantasy; it also lends itself to some deeper and unsettling thoughts.
- Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Benjamin January series:
- A Free Man of Color (1997)
- Fever Season (1998)
- Graveyard Dust (1999)
- Sold Down the River (2000)
- Die Upon a Kiss (2001)
- Wet Grave (July 2002)
- Days of the Dead (July 2003)
- Dead Water (August 2004)
- The Quirinal Hill Affair (a.k.a. Search the Seven Hills) (1983)
- Bride of the Rat God (1994)
- Stranger at the Wedding (1994)
- Magic Time (2001) (co-written with Marc Scott Zircree)
- The Emancipator's Wife (January 2005)
- Renfield:Slave of Dracula (September 2006)
- Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers (January 2007)
Sisters of the Raven Series:
The Darwath Trilogy
- The Time of the Dark (1982)
- The Walls of Air (1982)
- The Armies of Daylight (1983)
- Mother of Winter (1996)
- Icefalcon's Quest (1998)
Sun Wolf and Starhawk
The Windrose Chronicles
James Asher/Vampire Series
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- The Barbara Hambly Web site with reviews and lots of information
- Interviews with Barbara Hambly
- MostlyFiction.com's page on the Benjamin January series
- Asymmetry review of Knight of the Demon Queen
- SF Site review of Dragonstar
- StrangeHorizons.com review of Sisters of the Raven
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About the Author:
Barbara Hambly was born in San Diego, California in 1951. She grew up in Southern California, with the exception of one high-school semester spent in New South Wales, Australia. She attended the University of California, Riverside and spent a year at the University of Bordeaux, France, specializing in medieval history and eventually obtaining a master's degree in the subject.
She has worked as a teacher, a technical editor and and a karate instructor (she holds a Black Belt in Shotokan karate and has competed in several national-level tournaments), but her first love has always been history. Ranging from fantasy to historical fiction, Barbara Hambly has a masterfulway of spinning a story. Her interest in fantasy began with reading The Wizard of OZ at an early age and it has continued ever since. She was the president of Science Fiction Writers of America from 1994 to 1996.
She married George Alec Effinger in 1998 and now lives in Los Angeles, California.