On rereading Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God for the purpose of writing this review, I was surprised once more by what a truly superb novel it is. On rereading, I found new details to savor, ones that I had overlooked before because I had been too caught up in the excitement of the plot. I still remembered what was about to happen, and could properly appreciate details in the descriptions and the development of the characters that I previously had passed over. Written long before the present craze for fantasy and paranormal novels, in addition to being very well-written, this book has the great advantage of being fresh and original.
The novel is set among the film-makers in 1923 Los Angeles. Everything is described in a highly evocative, sensual manner so that as a reader, you can see the scenery clearly in your inner eye, hear the sounds, and almost smell the smells. A lot of information about Hollywood’s early history and the making of silent movies is included yet Barbara Hambly never begins to bore with lengthy descriptions. Instead she seamlessly inserts details that the narrator observes or considers at a given moment and that are relevant to her situation right then.
The character from whose point-of-view almost every scene is told is Norah Blackstone, a 26-year-old Englishwoman who has only just come to Los Angeles. During the Great War, she married an American who was then killed. After her family died of the flu, she spent five horrible years as an underpaid companion, a situation from which she has been saved by her American sister-in-law, the beautiful actress Christine Flint aka Chrysanda Flamande. Norah now lives at Christine’s house, taking care of her and her three Pekingese dogs.
Of the two heroines of the novel, Norah is the easier to like. She has lived through some truly horrendous years and is about to rise above them; she has a tolerant, no-nonsense attitude towards the vagaries of Hollywood; and she has a true fondness for Christine and the dogs. At the premiere of Christine’s latest film, she meets cameraman Alec Mindelbaum. It’s sympathy at first sight and quickly develops into love. Alec is a delight. He is four inches shorter than Norah, bearded, with glasses, and utterly lovely. (Give me a man like Alec over a black-haired, blue-eyed, six foot four billionaire-rake as the hero of a romance any day.) While his feelings for Norah are straightforward from the start, she must first let go the memory of her beloved first husband and find her own place in Hollywood. Their romance would develop in a fairly uncomplicated manner were it not for the mysterious events that suddenly haunt Christine following the premiere.
First of all, an old Chinese man tries to talk to Christine, claiming it is a matter of life and death. He is turned away, but both Norah and Alex remark that he does not seem to be the usual sort of fan. The same night, the stuntman who used to double for Christine is slashed to death with a broken bottle. The obvious suspect is the stuntman’s lover, an aging British actor who has disappeared, but as he lacks the necessary strength and was very drunk that night, questions remain. The foundations of Christine’s house are marked as with huge claws. And Christine’s Pekingese and the male lead of her new film begin to act very strangely indeed. To tell more would be spoiling future readers’ fun. Just know that the plotting is intricate, the action scenes are breathtaking and well-choreographed, and the conclusion deeply satisfactory.
Christine, the other heroine, first appears as a superficial, selfish, fun-loving diva who uses the word “darling” in every other sentence. She drinks and takes cocaine, she sleeps in late, plays Mahjong all day, and sees no problem in cheating on her producer lover with every good-looking waiter who catches her fancy. Norah seems very much the archetypal poor relation. Very slowly more is revealed about the relationship between the two women, about Christine’s background that made her the person she is, and about the complex facets of her character. At the end, I came to like and admire her, and while Barbara Hambly does not give her the traditional HEA – which would have been jarring anyway – what she does give her makes sense and is heartwarming.
Now for the dogs. The original reason for Christine to take in Norah were her three Pekingese – Chang Ming, Black Jasmine and Buttercreme – because she needed someone to look after them. The dogs are very well- described, each with their own character, and are lovable without getting cutesy. Not surprisingly, they play an important role in spite of their diminutive size.
Bride of the Rat God has been out of print for some time. This is a real shame, especially as a number of Barbara Hambly’s fantasy novels have seen reissues. I was lucky enough to get my copy at a Cambridge (UK) bookshop. However you do it, I recommend you land yourself a copy and enjoy this wonderful treat. Especially if you love dogs and fantasy…but even if you are not into either. It’s this good.
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