Friday, April 27, 2012

Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

I can't pretend to be at all rational about Barbara Hambly. When I read her books, it's not just about the pleasure of reading a really well-put-together story, it's the way that reading one of her books puts a hot iron to my own creative impulses. She writes not only worlds that I gladly get completely lost inside, but worlds that make me want to create ones of my own. Though I should have known/remembered, it was a surprise to realize/remember that, though Hambly's vampire novels have been published many, many years apart, internally, it's been less than a handful of years. Which is an observation that's really here nor there except that I really need to go back and reread the whole series from the start. One thing I like best about Hambly's vampires is that, although they can be beautiful, seductive, and—as in the case of Ysidro—hero/protagonists, she never stints on the idea that they are, first and foremost, predators and that every beautiful, seductive thing that they do is for self-serving reasons, be it protection or food. And though the relationship—triangle—between Asher, Lydia and Ysidro is central to the entire series, it definitely comes at a gradually steeper price, both in responsibility (with great knowledge, blah blah…) and in danger. This latest book takes place in Beijing (Peking) in the days of the early Republic of China. I've read Hambly's Benjamin January series and liked it greatly, both on its own merits and for a thoughtful representation of a non-Caucasian culture by a Caucasian author. Magistrates of Hell, unfortunately, is somewhat more problematic than the January series, if only because, unlike the January series, Magistrates is written from the point of view of the colonialists. And though James and Lydia are both greatly open-minded and non-partisan for any time period, let alone this one, they're still—by necessity—people of a certain place and time, looking at Chinese culture through foreign eyes and judging it accordingly. As well, the nature of the story and the motivations behind it mean that very little of ordinary Chinese society of the time is seen. Only that part of it that particularly panders to the colonials, either through politics or through the seedy commerce of drugs, prostitution, etc. I think that Hambly does go through great pains to present China, and the Chinese, sympathetically and with relatively non-judgmental equivalency…but I also don't think she always succeeds. In particular, early in the book, Hambly sets up a comparison between the more obvious bigots of the diplomatic corps declaring that Chinese culture/thinking/being is unfathomable because "they're not like other people", versus a vampire hunter declaring similarly about vampires because they're not human. This, on the one hand, shows up the fulcrum of bigotry, creating Otherness where none necessarily exists. But on the other hand, it's basically equating being Chinese with being a bloodsucking monster. Ouch. Though my uneasiness about this representation of (a particular part) of Chinese culture persisted throughout the book, it wasn't so great a deal-breaker that I didn't love the hell out of the book anyway. Since Traveling With The Dead, Lydia's feelings for/about Ysidro (and vice versa) have been very apparent, but in Magistrates, I found myself a lot more conscious of Asher's part in the triangle and how, though much less overt, in that restrained English manner, his feelings for Ysidro are no less powerful than Lydia's and how, given that Asher is fully aware of Lydia's feelings about Ysidro and vice versa, he shares Lydia with Ysidro fairly equably, other than the natural concern that he and Lydia are entangled in something of a long con by a predator. That is, there is something very polyamorous about the relationship that, while not expressed in sexual terms, is no less strong for the lack. And no less fascinating, either. And while the trappings with which Hambly brings together these three adventurers is, in and of itself, a romp worth having, it's the ongoing unanswered question of how this relationship will/does/can resolve that keeps bringing me back when other vampire stories have long been leaving me…cold.

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