One day, many years ago, I was in a Borders bookstore, and I saw this book with a very peculiar cover. It showed a classic fantasy wizard – hat, long white hair and flowing beard, staff, robes, the works – sitting in a 1970s-80s efficiency kitchen like in apartments I'd lived in (formica counters and cheap chairs and all), holding a can of Budweiser.
I picked the book off the shelf, slightly annoyed, saying to myself, "There is no way this cover actually represents what's in the book." Given the common history of book covers, I had some basis for that belief.
But I was wrong.
The book was The Time of the Dark, first book in Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy (since expanded); the other two books are The Walls of Air and The Armies of Daylight, and this was my introduction to Barbara Hambly's work.
The book opens with nightmarish imagery of a fantastic city under siege by… something horrible, and then gives us mundane slices of life in a world very like our own. These two worlds are of course on a collision course, and that collision is engineered by Ingold Inglorion, one of the greatest wizards (and also greatest swordsmen) of the land of Darwath. Ingold comes to our world as a temporary refuge, where he meets Gil Patterson – a graduate student who has had the dreams of Ingold's world – and Rudy Solis, a young man who has never quite fit in. It is in Gil's apartment that Ingold precisely fulfills the description on the cover.
Ingold's purpose is to save the last prince of the country of Renwath, a baby named Tir, by keeping him safe in our world away from the terrible things that seek him – the things called the Dark. The Dark are never clearly described, but are semi-amorphous creatures of blackness and cutting tentacles and tails that have always sounded, to me, like a floating manta ray with a tentacled mouth. They are described with a horror-novel, eldritch atmosphere that makes them extremely Lovecraftian. The Dark are very tough, can dissolve into shadow and return apparently at will, and can not only strip flesh from bodies but can destroy minds, leaving bodies intact but mindless. Their only true weakness appears to be light and fire; even a strong moonlight will tend to keep them away.
But the Dark manage to find their way through the Void that separates worlds and the ensuing battle leaves Ingold little choice but to cross back to his home – bringing Gil and Rudy with him.
So begins an epic quest to save a kingdom, perhaps a world, from the rising threat of the Dark – whose powers can also dampen those of even powerful wizards – and, at the same time, personal quests of Gil and Rudy to discover what place, if any, they have in this world of swords, magic, treachery, and monsters.
Hambly plays deftly with expectations and tropes, sometimes using them straight, sometimes turning them slightly, sometimes tipping them completely over. She's not above a bit of bait-and-switch plotting; for instance, the dreams that Gil has would at first seem to imply that she is, or could be, a wizard like Ingold, but instead it turns out that it is Rudy who is the untrained wizard, and Gil (short for Gillian) Patterson becomes a fearsome warrior, tremendously talented and quickly learning the trade of a soldier. Similarly, while some tropes might lead the reader to expect Gil and Rudy to become a pair, Gil actually turns out to be attracted to Ingold, while Rudy falls in love with the widowed Queen.
The Dark are a truly terrifying threat; they rise from deep places within the earth and fly to nearly anywhere at night. They are also more than strong and smart enough to break through ordinary defenses, leaving the only choice for safety the ancient "Keeps" – extraordinary gargantuan fortresses which turn out to be relics of a far more advanced ancient civilization.
Hambly has some quirks which are perfectly reasonable writing devices but that she re-uses in multiple books. In particular, she has as a nearly constant theme the existence of a "Church" of some sort which is diametrically opposed to the wizards. As this was my first encounter with Hambly's work, I didn't mind it in this trilogy, but after reading several of her other works such as the Darkmage dualogy and the Starhawk and Sun Wolf novels, I think her treatment of the "Church" in this trilogy is significantly less nuanced, and thus weaker, than in later novels. The later ones seem to make something more of an effort to justify or explain the Church's stance, while in the Darwath trilogy the Church is mostly there as a pain in the ass for Our Heroes to overcome in some manner while addressing the more important issues of how to keep all of humanity from being appetizers or slaves of the Dark.
I won't go into great detail as to the actual events in the trilogy; this is a very good, very complex plotline that Hambly deftly guides to a startling climax. I will say that the actual resolution of the major conflict surprised the living hell out of me when I read it, and I considered it, upon reflection, to be one of the most brilliant underminings of classic expectations I've ever seen – mainly because it worked for me, even though it was undermining expectations that I would normally want to see fulfilled.
Atmospheric, complex, and powerful: if you want to see what a great debut by a great writer looks like, look no farther than the Darwath Trilogy.