When I was a kid and in my lunatic reading phase (that precious time of life when you read a book every other day and never sleep, because you’re up all night reading by flashlight) fantasy was everything, partly because the first books I ever read—my formative books—were The Chronicles of Narnia and L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and partly because I absolutely wanted to find a doorway to a magical world and become a wizard. Any book series that told a story about someone from our world entering a magical one (what genre buffs call a “portal fantasy”) was basically an instant sale for me.
Barbara Hambly’s The Time of The Dark, the first entry in the Darwath trilogy, was published in 1982, which meant it was sitting seductively on the shelves at the hight of my quest for an enchanted wardrobe (or possibly a moving painting) that would take me to another realm. In a lot of ways, it’s a familiar story:thousands of years ago in a magical, medieval world, The Dark nearly eradicated mankind before finally being driven underground. Now, they have returned, but the civilization of men has decayed in the meantime, and may not have the strength to defeat these mysterious and horrifying creatures again. In an attempt to safeguard an infant prince, the Wizard Ingold Inglorion crosses over into our world, finding himself in the kitchen of Gil Patterson, a Ph.D. student with a deep understanding of history. He also meets Rudy Solis, a drifter without purpose. Gil has been having dreams about The Dark, although she doesn’t know what they are. Soon, the evil invades Earth, forcing Ingold to flee back to his own world, taking Gil and Rudy with him.
So far, so expected—that’s the basic premise of dozens of fantasy stories, after all. But Hambly finds her way to something special in the depth of detail she lavished on her characters. Whereas in a lot of portal fantasies, the characters doing the crossing end up being super special “Chosen Ones” like the Pevensies, fated to gain immense powers and to rule vast kingdoms, Rudy and Gil are no such thing: they’re moderately intelligent people who didn’t fit in well in our world, who find their true callings in this new, magical one. Neither one has any sort of special powers, but they pursue careers—Gil as a warrior, Rudy as a wizard—that explain why both of them felt so out of place on Earth: you can’t exactly be a wizard in Omaha.
The other elements that Hambly handles perfectly across this relatively short trilogy (I think if you put the books together, they might still be shorter than a single volume of A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time) is the arc of the villains of the piece, The Dark: the struggle with these fearsome monsters is cloaked in lost knowledge, as almost everything mankind once knew about them has been lost to time. Although she trains as a soldier, Gil uses her expertise as a historian to sift through the remnants of knowledge left from the ancient times, and it is through this detective work that The Dark’s true purpose is revealed—leading, I think, to one of the greatest resolutions to this type of story ever conceived.
Through all of it, Hambly constructs a believable sketch of a civilization under immense strain and in the midst of a slow-motion collapse. There is a real sense that if Gil, Rudy, and Ingold (and their companions and allies) can’t somehow find the answers, everything is going to end, and end badly. It’s a surprisingly powerful story to be told in such short books. They demand to be read by anyone dreams of fleeing to a life of adventure in another world—or used to.