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Goat Heads and Sand Burrs, P. Kirby's Reading Blog

The good, bad, and fugly books I've read.
Dragonsbane (Winterlands #1) - Barbara Hambly I first read Dragonsbane, um, decades ago, when I was probably in my early teens. My recollection - faint, very - is that I enjoyed parts of it, but was somewhat bored with others.

Fast-forward to now, and my assessment is the similar. I suspect, years ago, my teenage self found Jenny Waynest's middle-agey angst a little incomprehensible. Similarly, her struggles with the idea of motherhood. There's a strong chance that I also struggled with Hambly's lovely, but sometimes overcooked turns of phrase.

Let's address the second issue first. In a nutshell, Hambly's writing is quite pretty, using all manner of interesting similes and analogies to describe the settings of the world of Dragonsbane. Me, I'm a big fan of a well-used analogy. But...it seems that a tree can never be simply described as a tree. Every aspect of the geography and scenery gets a detailed, verbose description. And quite frankly, a good deal of the verbiage expended on scene setting is unnecessary. Because, quite often a rose is a rose, and a tree, a tree. It was funny, because part of me wanted to spend the time reading the description, just for the benefit of my own writer's brain, to stimulate ye old white matter with the interesting prose.

But...for the most part, my short attention span demanded that I skim, skim, skim.

This time around, however, I totally "got" Jenny's existential angst. Jenny Waynest is a witch, living on the fringe of an isolated community, where she serves as mid-wife/healer. Magic, as taught to her by her mentor, is a cruel taskmaster and acquiring any degree of proficiency requires an austere lifestyle of contemplation with few distractions. Jenny's relationship with Lord John Aversin (the dragonsbane) is just the kind of distraction she should avoid. Particularly, since the affair has produced two children.

So, as she approaches middle age, Jenny finds herself torn between the good things in her life (children, John) and the inevitable frustration of wishing she had done more with her magic, her chosen vocation. Basically, she reaches that point in life where she looks back at her accomplishments and thinks, "That's it? That's all I am? Well, fuck." Yeah, Jenny, I hear ya.

What I particularly liked was that the story acknowledged an unspoken truth: that not all women are at ease with the idea of having their identity utterly sublimated by the word "mother." That some women approach motherhood with a degree of ambivalence.

Jenny loves her sons; she is, in fact, utterly floored by how much she loves them, but she still chooses to live on her own, away from the boys. (She sees them frequently; but someone else does a good chunk of the mothering.) She admits that magic continues to be the defining aspect of who she is.

At the beginning of the story, she is pretty much muddling along with a vague sense of discontent, but with no idea what to do about it. When Gareth, a young nobleman, arrives with news of an attacking dragon in the capital city and begging for John's help in slaying the beast, Jenny knows she must accompany John on his mission. This decision puts on her on a collision course with everything she has hoped to be but isn't, and eventually, the hard choice between family and magic.

Although the villain is a stock character straight out of central casting -- beautiful, power-hungry witch -- the rest of main characters are vivid and real people, including the dragon, Morkeleb. John, in particular is a fabulous mixture of soldier/scholar/geek.

Worth the reread, although the rather dense description keeps Dragonsbane from being a "keeper."