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If Dragonsbane had been written post-2000, I would not be giving it a 5 star review. Let me be open about that. In the same way that, if the average Fantasy reader were honest with him or herself, The Lord of the Rings is a tad outdated by modern standards. But it is still considered one of the greatest Fantasy works of all time. Why? Because it WAS one of the greatest Fantasy works of ITS time. It, in large part, founded modern Fantasy, for good and ill.
To a lesser extent, this is also true of Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane.
I cannot look at Dragonsbane through the glass of an average reader looking for a good read. Doing so would be a disservice to Hambly, to myself, and to Fantasy in general. Instead, I must look at it through the glass of a Fantasy lover, a student of the genre, a child of the old-fashioned parents I still adore.
Looking through that glass, I ignore the occasional dry and purple prose, ignore the slow pace of its first half, ignore the playwrite-clever way she skips or obscures important action scenes because the language was not quite there yet. I dig under what are for the most part minor flaws, common and almost expected for its time, and see the genius of the work.
No, Hambly doesn't provide stunning battles and pulse-pounding pursuits. But she provides something much more important instead: Character and Plot.
Reading from Jenny's perspective is at times heartbreaking due to the constant struggle within her. There are no black-and-white choices for her, no choosing a purpose or abandoning it, as many Fantasy heroes face. She does not have one Call To Action, but many, and each Call would pull her in a different direction. she cannot be true to one portion of her soul without denying another altogether.
We only see events from Jenny's perspective. This, especially, can feel archaic at times--especially when the action is happening elsewhere. But focusing on one perspective allows us to understtand that character more deeply than is otherwise possible; in places, more deeply than the character understands herself.
The plot is full of small amusements, wry humor, and a pervading gloom in the wake of Jenny's vision. Every time I thought I knew the outcome of the book, the plot shifted in a direction I didn't see coming. Actually, that's not completely true. As an avid reader of the Raymond E. Feist Midkemia books, I saw a few developments ahead of time.
But Feist is a child of Tolkien, Hambly, and the other greats as much as anyone. In places, the debt he owes Hambly is obvious. In places, Hambly reaches a level of awe and trepidation toward their shared creatures that Feist never does.
Dragonsbane stands alongside the works of today, but is overshadowed by multiple character storylines, transparent prose, concise action, and frentic chases. In the works of its day, however, it rises among the best on the beat of dragon wings.