Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blood Maidens by Barbara Hambly, a book review

Having long ago read, enjoyed, and reread Those Who Hunt the Night (Immortal Blood in the UK) and Traveling with the Dead, I was delighted when the series finally continued with Blood Maidens.

"But what is it about?" a friend asked recently. It's a fair question. The series is set in the early 1900's (1911 for Blood Maidens, somewhere around three years earlier for Those Who Hunt the Night). In all three books, James Asher, philologist, professor, and former spy for Great Britain, finds himself dealing with politics and mysteries present in the human and vampire world and the approach of the Great War.  Partnered with him are Lydia, his wife, a medical researcher, and Don Simon Ysidro, a several hundred year old vampire who keeps some of the courtly manners of 1555, the last year he was alive. In Those Who Hunt the Night the partnership is involuntary: Ysidro having made it clear that he is a vampire makes it equally clear that he will kill Lydia and James both if James does not agree to his demands. In the later two books, the partnership is more equal: There are threats to both humans and vampires that take both to resolve and the three have achieved a level of trust.

I wondered how well a sequel written five years later would pick up the threads of the former books. It wasn't a problem. Blood Maidens takes place about a year after Traveling with the Dead and the relationships are picked up without a hitch. This time, it looks as though the Germans might be recruiting a vampire to their side, a problem for both humans and vampires because vampires rely largely on secrecy for their safety and because the human political balance of power could be drastically shifted if one side had an army of immortal, powerful vampires on their side (and recruiting one vampire means recruiting all the vampires s/he chooses to make). Asher quickly begins to suspect, however, that Ysidro has non-political reasons behind his decision.  Motives aside, they quickly discover unexpected plots and plans in the vampire kingdoms and difficulties in the human political arena that are more than enough to keep Lydia, Asher, and Ysidro occupied and often in danger.

I love these books partly for their atmosphere; Hambly has a degree in medieval history which gives her a good grounding in research and a knack for knowing just which details to include to create the world of the early twentieth century. Her characters are also very much of and from their time, not twenty-first century caricatures standing outside and criticizing(1). The cautious friendship between the Ashers and Ysidro is also well-portrayed. How can you be friends with someone who regularly kills people for food? Who is going to go on doing so, unless you kill him? How can you not be friends with someone who has consistently and honorably kept his word and who has saved both your lives on more than one occasion? Or, from Ysidro's point of view (which is, wisely, never given), how can you be friends with food? And, of course, there is a mind-bogglingly layered set of plots, counterplots, and plans, plus the worry that James Asher will be recognized by people who knew him under another name, from his time as a spy.

I think Blood Maidens could be read as a stand-alone; the story is complete in itself, but reading the first two books made it better.

Certainly it was worth waiting for. Now, maybe, just maaaybe we'll get a sequel to Dog Wizard. Please?

(1) Twentieth/Twenty-first century women in Victorian clothing is a pet peeve of mine. I've never really been able to really enjoy Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, for example, because Amelia is so modern in her views; there's no trace of the Victorian anywhere in her. Lydia, in contrast, is a medical researcher at a time when women were not commonly allowed to get medical degrees, and she is a very capable person, but she still reflects beliefs of her time, has struggled with her decisions, and works to be "beautiful" by the standards of her time.


  1. Oh, this does sound good! I read the first book last year but didn't know it had any sequels. I haven't read many books at all featuring vampires but really couldn't put Those Who Hunt the Night Down. I'll have to look for the other two, now.

  2. There's such an overload of vampire books on the shelves these days that I pretty much automatically avoid them.

    This series, though, started before the glut.

  3. I need to get back around to Barbara Hambly. I read Those Who Hunt the Night a while ago, right when I was starting to go off vampires, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Her other books sound equally cool and intriguing.

    P.S. I have to stand up for Amelia -- one of the reasons I like the series so much is that although some of the other characters (NEFRET) are super-duper-modern, Amelia is believably Victorian to me. She's independent, but not insanely so, and you often see the prejudices that she has because of the time period she lives in.

  4. I read the first one ages ago. You've convinced me that I need to reread it and find the other two!

  5. Niki, yes, you'll like Blood Maidens more if you at least remember the first two.

    Jenny: I don't know. Maybe I need to give Amelia another try, but I bounced pretty hard off the two I tried; between what I saw as Amelia's unexamined twentieth century beliefs and then, later, her son's unbelievable precocity, I was one unhappy reader.

  6. Nice info! Timely, too; for the first time ever, 17 of her books are now available in ebook format. Video of Barbara and info on the newly released ebooks (Those Who Hunt the Night included!) here: http://www.openroadmedia.com/authors/barbara-hambly.aspx