Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Sisters of the Raven
Barbara Hambly
Warner Aspect, 465 pages

Sisters of the Raven
Barbara Hambly
Award-winning author Barbara Hambly was born in San Diego and grew up in Southern California. She attended the University of California, Riverside, where she obtained a master's degree in medieval history and a black belt in Shotokan karate. She later taught a year of high school, waited tables, taught karate, shelved books in the local library and was "downsized" out of the aerospace industry two days after signing her first book contract in 1981 (Time of the Dark, first of the Darwath Trilogy). Other novels include The Magicians of Night, Bride of the Rat God, Children of the Jedi, Those Who Hunt the Night and Traveling with the Dead, as well as the critically acclaimed Benjamin January historical mystery series. She has been the President of the Science Fiction Writers of America (1994-1996), won a Locus Award and has multiple Nebula Award nominations. Currently, she lives in Los Angeles.

Barbara Hambly Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Dragonstar
Excerpt: Sisters of the Raven
Barbara Hambly Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In the Realm of the Seven Lakes, magic is dying. Or so fear the men, in whom the world's magic has always, exclusively, been born. But reluctant as they are to admit the dwindling of their powers, the male mages are even more unwilling to acknowledge the fact that the sorcerous ability they are losing isn't actually vanishing from the world, but only awakening in different vessels: women.

In a society where women are utterly subject to men, with few rights or privileges of their own, this is not only a cosmic insult but a profound threat to the social order. The situation is desperate, however, for the mages of the Citadel can no longer summon the seasonal rains, and without them the desert-bordered Realm faces catastrophic drought. For the first time in history, a female magic-wielder has been admitted to the College of the Sun Mages in the Yellow City, in hopes her power can revitalize the annual ritual.

Centuries of tradition can't immediately be overthrown, of course, and Raeshaldis, the new novice, must struggle with the prejudice of her teachers and the hazing of the other students. Meanwhile, Oryn Jothek, king of the Realm, tries to persuade the reluctant lords of his council to back his plan to reduce the Realm's reliance on magic by finding a mechanical way to bring water; and magic-wielding women -- including Oryn's consort, the Summer Concubine -- experiment in secret to harness their unpredictable new powers, with equally unpredictable results. As the rains fail to arrive, the people's fear grows, while Oryn's lords plot against him and a fanatical religious leader with an alternative explanation for the drought acquires an increasingly violent following. And somewhere in the Yellow City, someone -- or something -- is kidnapping and horribly murdering women who do magic.

At her best, Barbara Hambly is a writer of grace and subtlety, and this is one of her best. The Realm of the Seven Lakes is vivid with sun and dust and squalor and luxury, a world carefully built (like the 19th century New Orleans of Hambly's Benjamin January mystery series) through an artful layering of historical detail, custom and physical description and revealed like a painting through the eyes of the characters. Hambly draws on Persian, Egyptian, and Japanese elements to create this vibrant imaginary world; the magic system, involving elemental forces and spells worked with runes and sigils, is more conventional, but this is offset by the book's interesting portrayal of the consequences of dwindling magic in a society that depends on sorcery for even the most basic tasks. What do you do, for instance, if you've always relied on wards to keep mice out of your larder, and suddenly those wards don't work? Or when healing charms lose their efficacy and there's no herb lore to put in their place? The mages' loss of magic isn't merely a supernatural puzzle, but a cultural disaster threatening terrible disruption -- a more interesting and realistic exploration of this sort of theme than usual.

There's also a nuanced examination of the conflict that arises when entrenched gender roles are threatened. In the Realm of the Seven Lakes, women are so devalued that proper names are given them only when they marry; until then, daughters are known simply by number, according to the order of their birth. Men are free to abuse their wives and treat them as slaves; the greatest aspiration available to a girl of good birth is to become a Pearl Woman, her husband's most perfect and versatile servant. Given such a context, a book about the transfer of magic from male to female could easily become an exercise in authorial ideology, with women's magic cast as more natural or more wise or more something-conventionally-feminist than men's. But Hambly is subtler than this. Women's magic is certainly different, but not in any predictable gender-specific way. Women's wisdom -- shaped by their subjugation to and abuse by males -- isn't any more intrinsically incisive or correct than men's: untrained women wreak havoc by making magic for others' good, or create grief and injury by employing it for malicious ends. At the book's climax, women do save the day -- but only with the cooperation of the powerless male mages, who possess the training and knowledge the women lack.

Sisters of the Raven contains other fine things -- a convincing depiction of the power of fanaticism and the damage it can do; deft and sympathetic characterizations (especially Oryn, the formerly dissipated king forced to assume the burden of rule, whose combination of rueful self-knowledge and steely will is very winning); lovely, evocative prose; and a suspenseful murder mystery. While the mystery is resolved, other issues, such as the reasons behind the transfer of magic, aren't -- very frustrating if the novel is indeed (as the publisher's packaging makes it appear) a stand-alone, but leaving plenty of room for interesting exploration, if there are to be sequels. Hopefully there will be; I'm eager to pay another visit to the Realm of the Seven Lakes, and see how it all turns out.

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide