Book cover: The Time of the Dark - Barbara HamblyThis is traditional portal fantasy: two outsiders from our world are sucked into a conflict with an ancient, (literally) nebulous enemy in a parallel fantasy world. Darwath is losing the war, its King is dead, his heir a baby, and the political powers are at one another’s throats as they vie for control in spite of ongoing assaults. This first installment sets the scene and embeds the offworlders for (presumably) future glory.

This is my first foray into Hambly, and I dropped into it like a stone into water. It reminds me strongly of (best bits of) the Deed of Paksennarrion and the (older) works of Guy Gavriel Kay (his more recent work hasn’t floated my boat) – strongly drawn, richly imagined and a pleasure to read.

It’s the details that make the difference. PhD student Gil isn’t given to romance or babies; she gravitates to the Guard to become a tough warrior, which the egalitarian society of Darwath fully supports. Self-absorbed biker artist Rudy is drawn to a noble lover and an unexpected profession in spite of a broad streak of cowardice. Ingold may be a Gandalf knock off, but he has rather more charm and self-deprecating humour at his disposal. Even the supporting characters are finely drawn, leaping into life from brief sketches and carefully-chosen interactions.

It is a great episode, and demands further reading in best serial style (it doesn’t really succeed as a standalone novel). There are a couple of niggles, of course – it does adhere to a well-trodden format, so there are no real surprises in the execution of the plot or indeed the character development. To this end, Gil seems to transition from skinny student to competent warrior a little too easily (there’s being a natural talent, then there (ought to be) a question of muscle mass, fitness and malnutrition). The excellent tweaks of tone of voice and vocabulary do trip me up as Rudy’s Californian vocabulary is so jarring in a faux-mediaeval world. But these are minor gripes. But really, I’m enjoying this an awful lot and I’m going straight to the sequel.

****1/2