REVIEW: The Iron Princess by Barbara Hambly
Something is amiss with the world’s magic. Spells don’t work the way they used to—when they work at all. Only the powers of the Crystal Mages remain as they were, powers founded on the use of the mystical element adamis, the harvesting of which has enslaved the peoples of the Twilight Lands.
They need a hero.
At the same time, ravenous beasts have begun to appear, legendary creatures that seem to be proof against any magic. And Clea Stylachos, granddaughter of a great sage of the Twilight people, has reason to fear that the Crystal Mages, instead of seeking to defeat these insanely destructive monsters, are attempting to weaponize them in their quest for power.
Clea’s only hope to save her people is a wizard who retains his power, one who will not betray her, either to the great merchant houses or to the all-entangling web of the Crystal Mages. But that wizard—Ithrazel the Cursed, destroyer of a city and magically imprisoned to suffer undying, unremitting torment—wants nothing to do with saving the world, helping a hero, or unraveling the terrible secret at the heart of the Crystal Mages’ plans.
From the slums and tunnels of the slave-city of Morne, to the watery wilderness of the Twilight lands, to the halls of her father’s palace and the spell-soaked mysteries of the Crystal Mages’ House of Glass, Clea works to untwist the deadly riddles of magic and monsters—to free her mother’s disenfranchised people from slavery under her father’s conquering forces. To save her mageborn brother from the Crystal Mages’ power; to control a sorcerer legendary for his deed of evil; to keep her own small band of friends one step ahead of her father’s troops and the Crystal Order’s spells.
She is the Iron Princess, and she knows she must prevail or die.
But at what cost to herself?
Dear Ms. Hambly,
So we’ve got our ragtag band, mages who have witnessed horrific things and are mentally scarred by that, evil mages, greedy merchants, magic going awry, hard bitten survivors, underworld criminals, monsters, a guy with a love spell on him, more monsters, dialog like “I tried to reach the Brown Archmage Jodrofar, in Yellenyth in Telmayre,” spoke up Manzardath. “Kenzag tried to reach the head of the Black Order, Egalvax, just after the attack on the Tarnweald, and the innocents who will be immolated and killed unless Something Is Done. Yeah, that about covers most of it. Once I knew it was coming out, I eagerly awaited this book. I liked it, I hated it, and finally I enjoyed it.
Well the story gets off to a good start when a mage, who destroyed a city and killed 50,000 people, is freed by our heroine from being torn to shreds every day (and rejuvenated each night) by eagles the size of small houses. Clea handles her sword like the trained warrior she is but, feeling the need for some backup who wouldn’t skedaddle, she brings along a young shepherd who she had her friend, a mage, put a love spell on. Mage freed, the four of them high tail it out of there. Clea intends to leave Hamo behind and Ithrazel is delighted to see this cocky young woman faced with the fact that this spell isn’t going to wear off quickly. Clea earns back a smidge of his respect when she saves Hamo who refuses to be left behind.
Now let me delve into that love spell a bit. I’m sure some readers are going to be saying, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s coercion or dubious consent. Gender flip that and it’s obvious it’s wrong.” And I was uncomfortable, too. Clea’s realization that she done wrong and her attempts to treat Hamo better are a start and Clea’s opinion of the young man improves as she also comes to understand he’s not just a pretty face who will do anything for her (which, to her credit, she tries multiple times to keep him from putting himself in danger to do.) In the end, Hamo confesses something
Clea then lays out why she needs Ithrazel and why she refuses to remove the ensorceled links from his wrists. She wants his help but she’ll force it if need be which sinks her again in Ithrazel’s opinion. But the need is indeed great as Awful Things have been happening lately which Authority has been hushing up. Authority has also been enslaving masses of people to dig for the substance that a group of mages base their magic on so they’re scumbags anyway.
It was about this point when the pace began to slow as the worldbuilding and introduction of tons of characters began to bog things down. For roughly a third of the book I started to feel as if all that worldbuilding was being loaded on my back and I was staggering along under the increasing weight of it. I’ll be honest – it was a chore to keep going. At one point, I thought that banging my head on a piece of wood would feel as good as continuing this inundation of people and places and mages. It seemed as if barely anything was actually happening.
Then just as quickly, almost at the drop of a hat, BAM we’re back in business. Stuff is happening. Monsters are appearing. Clea is in danger. The city is panicking too as they’re in so much danger. And finally everything is making sense. Would this ragtag band of misfits pull together in the face of something That Awful? Could they convince city citizens and hard-eyed underworld types of the imminent danger? Would they be able to outflank and thwart the evil baddies? Pitchforks, torches, glaives, swords, magic, and dusting of exposition later – well, I’ll leave off what happens.
I enjoyed Ithrazel the tormented mage the most. His dry, world weary tone just spoke to me. Clea is given some – well maybe not feet of clay but she had a toe or two of clay. She’s going to save the day by gum but she has her moments of weakness along the way. The rest of the characters are more or less stock ones from central casting but they play their parts okay and in the end, everyone brings the emotion for the final battle scene. I’m not sure if there will be a follow-up story as Clea and her band are faced with the aftermath of near citywide destruction and a whole host who wants to blame her for it and nitpick against each other plus there are probably still more monsters out there. I almost hope there will be as I’ve got the worldbuilding learned dammit. We’ll see. B-