Review: The Windrose Chronicles by Barbara Hambly

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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January 4, 2022

Well, it’s a review of the first three books. A look at Goodreads shows that there’s at least one additional novel and a number of shorter works. And, to be honest, after reading these three–The Silent Tower, The Silicon Mage, and Dog Wizard, I have no desire to ever read anything in this setting ever again.

I wanted to like these books, I really did. There’s a lot for me to want to like: a female computer programmer (Joanna) gets pulled into a parallel world in which magic is real and meets a powerful wizard (Antryg) and between him and her at-times magical purse, they manage to save his world and hers from a Big Bad (Suraklin). That’s the first two books, the third book–well, that’s something else.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

First, the content warnings. The Prince Regent in these books is a homosexual. You know, the kind that prances around, paints his face, and enjoys the company of twinks. That kind of homosexual. He’s a minor character in the first two books.

Also an ultimately minor character, that y’all need a warning about. Caris is a sworn warrior, a sassenan, and by tradition, when a sassenan becomes disabled and can no longer serve their master, they are expected to suicide. Those who don’t are perceived as selfish and weak. Caris becomes disabled at the end of the second book and while he doesn’t commit suicide, he doesn’t appear in book three at all–despite having been a POV character in book one.

Second, I bought the Open Road Media editions nearly 10 years ago and I don’t know if they’ve been cleaned up between now and then, but my electronic copies were riddled with OCR errors so blatant that I’m pretty sure no one bothered even skimming the text (in Dog Wizard, for example, “me” is pretty consistently rendered as “the”).

Okay, with all that out of the way, on to other subjects. I loved Joanna, with her awkwardness and her muttering at computers, and her general air of competence through her insecurity. She is pretty great. And so is her purse. God, her purse. Who didn’t have a purse like that in the 80’s, I ask?

The shithole world she finds herself pulled into on the other hand… There are mages, but for unspecified historical reasons, they are not allowed to interfere in the lives of humans, be it for good or ill (I guess mages aren’t human?) and they are essentially required to be registered with a central authority of mages called the Council, are limited in where they can live and who they can associate with. Mages who refuse to abide by the Council’s laws are known as dog wizards. These rules and laws are ruthlessly enforced by the Church’s Witchfinder because of obscure historical reasons.

So anyhow, shithole medieval-ish world. Caris, the previously mentioned sworn warrior (who is constantly telling himself what the rules of the sassena are, this is about as exciting as watching paint dry), has accompanied his grandfather, Salteris, to the Silent Tower, where the mad, bad, and dangerous to know renegade mage Antryg Windrose has been held captive for the last seven years. He’s being held captive for reasons that are never fully explained in the text, just that he got kicked off the Council and it was for good reason and anyhow, didn’t you know that before he apprenticed with Salteris, he apprenticed with the evil mage Suralkin, so is therefore also evil? In addition to being insane. There’s never any proof that he’s either of those things, it’s just through the power of repetition that he’s those things.

At any rate, Antryg is probably one of the more sane characters in this bananapants rambling through the countryside oh look they’re eating stew again medieval shithole fantasy.

I felt really bad for poor Joanna. It turns out that she’s actually pretty good at figuring out what Suraklin is up to–because of course he didn’t die 25 years before the books started, but figured out a way to steal the bodies of other people magically and his big plan is to steal a U.S. military grade supercomputer from Joanna’s world, bring it through the portal to medieval shithole world, power it using magical devices that will suck the joy out of the lives of everyone in both worlds and become a world-dominating, immortal artificial intelligence.

What happens is that there’s a lot of wandering around the countryside–I think they circumnavigate the country at one point? It sure felt like they did–and then when Suralkin is taken out, it’s off the page. Which honestly, I felt a little mad about because it took a long-ass time to get to that point and Joanna’s complete competence and willingness to learn how to do new thing is completely taken for granted and I really wanted her to be able to to stab the Suraklin-possessed body of her negging kind of boyfriend Gary through the eye with the Bic pen from the bottom of her purse.

I will give Hambly major props to proto-techbro Gary, who is as much a douchebag as many techbros are today and if the book were written now, he’d totally be into cryptocurrency. He is just that kind of asshole.

Dog Wizard, happens after the events of The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage and I don’t know. I just don’t know. There’s kind of a plot, but it’s mainly about how everyone in the Mage’s Council doesn’t trust Antryg but he’s the only one who can save their stupid asses, so they bring him back to their shithole world and then Joanna ends up in some sort of magical prison where matches and flashlights don’t work but sound does, so she’s able to find a secondary character from the first two books, a dog wizard called Magister Magus, I shit you not, and they can be imprisoned together and not go insane, unlike the poor woman who’d been there for 25 years.

The best parts of Dog Wizard involve Ninetentwo, a particle physicist from yet another world, whose biology and chemistry is incompatible with Antryg’s and in The Silicon Mage he was using corpses to stay alive until Antryg and Joanna figured out what was going on and got him back to his own dimension–and I guess Antryg kept his address? Anyhow, he’s a science fiction movie monster who has all sorts of whizbang gadgets that do something to make sense of the magic, because if anything’s going to make sense of that part of the plot, it’s going to be whizbang gadgets.

Essentially, the mages of the Citadel–they’re all there because the Church and the Witchfinders have itchy burn them at the stake fingers–have been messing about with things beyond their ken–that is, opening portals between worlds, and things have gotten out of hand, so you know, they pulled Antryg back into their world, put a geas on him so he couldn’t use his magic, and then told him to fix everything even though they still think he’s evil and insane.

Which he does, because he’s Antryg and he’s awesome but honestly, dude, stop letting them use you like this. And Joanna comes out of things fine, too, but you know, if I’m them, I’m moving without leaving a forwarding address.

Before anyone tells me I’m being too hard on these books, I am aware they were published between 1986 and 1992. And there are certainly good bits, but there is a lot of aimless wandering around the plot that I simply don’t have the patience for now–and I don’t think I would have then, either. The worldbuilding makes no fucking sense, dimension hopping aside–why would you have mages but then not allow them to use their abilities? Why are the Church mages apparently allowed to mage? Are there retirement plans for the sassena or are they all supposed to just kill themselves the minute they think about putting the sword aside?

How come after all the sturm-und-drang of these books, how come nothing actually fucking changes in this society? What is the point if the status quo is upheld, especially when it’s such a shitty status quo?

Anyhow. I spent entirely too much time last month reading these books. Don’t be me. Read something good instead.

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