Sun Wolf’s father taught him three things: Don’t mess with magic, don’t argue with drunks or fanatics, and don’t fall in love. In the course of this novel, he will do all three.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn takes place in an imaginary world where a great empire has collapsed, leaving a politically unstable power vacuum. Sun Wolf, the brutal, hard-bitten captain of a highly successful band of mercenaries, has no shortage of work. Approximately a century ago, an apparently-immortal wizard named Altiokis began carving out a new empire for himself, not to mention hunting down and slaughtering every other wizard he can find. Sun Wolf, mindful of his father’s advice about magic, will not work for or against him.
Mandrigyn is a city in which women never had political or economic power and have always gone veiled. When Altiokis conquered the city, he took all the men away to work in his mines, so the ladies have begun to work husbands’ jobs and to run the city. They’ve also been conspiring to win their freedom from Altiokis. A beautiful, charismatic, and obsessed woman of Mandrigyn, Sheera Galernas, tries to hire Sun Wolf’s mercenaries to free the city from the wizard-king. Sun Wolf refuses, impolitely. So Sheera and several other women, including a wizard named Yirth, kidnap him, poison him, and give him an ultimatum. He will die of screaming agony from the poison, unless he agrees to teach the ladies of Mandrigyn to fight. They can use magic to postpone the poison’s effects indefinitely.
So Sun Wolf, who thinks of women as “human beings who are not men,” embarks upon the enlightening project of teaching the arts of war to a group of women whose hands “had certainly never handled anything harsher than a man’s flesh” in all their lives.
Meanwhile, two women are searching for Sun Wolf. One is his eighteen-year-old concubine, Fawn, who loves him because of the kindness he showed her when he bought her. The other is Starhawk, his lieutenant, an icy-cold fighter, “plain as bread.” Towards the beginning of this book, Sun Wolf says, of Starhawk, “That wasn’t a woman, that was my second in command, one of the finest warriors I’ve ever met.” But Sun Wolf is kidding himself. Starhawk is a woman, and her feelings for Sun Wolf are as powerful as they are complicated.
This novel is a rip-snorting adventure, filled with action, humor, crisp dialogue, and – be warned – quite a bit of gore. It is also extremely tightly plotted: complex layers of foreshadowing lead to a cascade of revelations that both surprise and make perfect sense. Not a single loose end is left untied.
The book works on another level, too, as a thoughtful exploration of the many ways that women, in a world that allows them no voice, are different from men. Sun Wolf muses, of the women he trains, that their strength is “dogged, ruthless, and, if necessary, crueler than any man’s. It had an animal quality to it, forged by years of repression; for all their beauty and sweetness, these were fifty people who would do whatever it was necessary to do, and the single-mindedness of it sometimes frightened him.” This passage is an excellent example of the depth of Hambly’s characterizations: it is an acute view of women, but it also reveals a great deal about the man who regards women this way.
The women we meet are varied: cool, seasoned warriors, prostitutes and concubines, embittered fanatics, spoiled brats, hairdressers, noblewomen, lesbians, nuns, scholars and troublemakers. All are portrayed with clear-eyed, even-handed understanding. Among the many reasons this book is excellent for young readers is the unsentimental tolerance with which these extremely varied women characters are treated.
This novel features a villain on the epic scale only fantasy authors can get away with, but even here, Hambly’s thorough characterization shows. Altiokis is entirely evil, but there is a reason even for that.
Finally, and most satisfyingly, The Ladies of Mandrigyn is a love story. Sun Wolf’s harsh upbringing and his career in war have hardened him into a brutal, barbaric warrior; he is intelligent and sensitive, but these traits are masked by blunt callousness. He is forced, against violent resistance, to confront his softer side. This teaches him a great deal about himself, and makes him realize the value of the woman who stood by his side through battles too numerous to count. The romance between Sun Wolf and Starhawk is so tightly intertwined with the adventure plot that the two are inseparable and mutually supporting – the mark of a truly skilled storyteller. I wish more authors had the talent to pull that off.
The Ladies of Mandrigyn is the first of a trilogy of novels about Sun Wolf and Starhawk. All are worth reading, but this is the best, and the most emotionally moving, of the three.
I have read The Ladies of Mandrigyn a dozen times since I discovered it when I was fifteen. If you don’t mind a bit of violence, I think it’s a particularly attractive book for young adult readers, but I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone, young or old, who likes intelligent plotting, high adventure, and romance.
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