Any time a change occurs in the social order and a long-oppressed group is elevated into a position of equality resentment towards them from those who had previously held sway in society is to be expected. We've seen many examples of that in North American society starting with black people in the 1950s and 60s, then women in the 1970s, and in the 1990s homosexuals.
Their move up the ladder of social acceptance from being barely tolerated to legally entrenched equality has been accompanied by loud outcries from a minority who see their absolute control over society vanishing. They can colour it with any words they want; religion, family values, and morality, but the truth is that it's just an excuse to complain about their grip on the reins of power slipping.
These themes were explored by Barbara Hambly in her novel Sister Of The Raven a number of years ago. For years the magic in the kingdom of The Seven Lakes had been in the hands of men. But all of sudden the world shifted and men were no longer able to perform magic and the power began to appear in women.
Society sees women as the equivalent of chattel; something a father can sell off for political expediency or into slavery if they bother her. A woman's place is in the Harem behind partitions and veils where no decent man can be corrupted by them. So, it's not just the Mages themselves unwilling to accept this revolting development, but any man still believing a woman belongs barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen (or harem as the case maybe) wasn't that thrilled either.
Barbara Hambly has finally returned to the fascinating world of The Seven Lakes with the recently published Circle Of The Moon and picked up the story where she left off at the end of Sister Of The Raven. Although the women have come under the protection of King Oryn – his favourite Concubine, Summerchild, (who is also the woman he loves more than anything in the world) was one of the first to discover she had power, they still don't have anywhere near complete acceptance.
They also still haven't figured out how to utilize the full force of the power. Spells that the male Sun Mages had never had any problems implementing seem to be beyond the grasp of the eight women who are known to have power. Unfortunately they don't have the luxury of taking their time in discovering a new source as the country is facing some very real dangers that only magic can protect them from.
Nobody has been able to call the rains with any degree of success for years now. As the men's power waned the rainfall had dropped to dangerously low levels, until now the spring rains are non-existent. Dryness that had started as an inconvenience has turned into a life-threatening drought that threatens the kingdom's existence. But that is only the start of their problems.
With the failure of magic demons and curses that had long been kept in check through wards and spells of containment are beginning to escape and spread their horror throughout the kingdom. Villages are succumbing to a mysterious plague that has seen fits of madness resulting in mass murder and the deaths of entire populations.
When Raeshalddis, one of the first to discover her own powers and the only woman to be trained in the male system of magic, has mysterious dreams of a woman calling for help because something is killing "the children" her first reaction is to believe the two incidences are related. Even stranger when she is called back to her family's compound to investigate magical attempts on her grandfather's life, she discovers traces of magic that she doesn't recognize.
Somebody else in the Yellow City, capital of the realm, knows how to do magic and has been able to hide it from the eight women. It also seems that this person is able to accomplish magic far in excess of what Raeshalddis and her colleagues can do. As all evidence points to the fact that men are unable to accomplish any magic, they assume this other wizard is a woman, but they won't know until they are able to track her down.
Barbara Hambly does a remarkable job with this book in creating both the world and the characters in order for the circumstances that take place to be believable. Even casual conversation between characters reinforces the atmosphere she has created of a medieval society based on the Muslim Ottoman Empire of our world. Of course this also allows the reader to quickly comprehend the circumstances that the women who have suddenly gained power find themselves in as we all ready are familiar with that type of structure.
One of the elements of Circle Of The Moon that I most appreciated was her ability to allow the actions of her characters to define the world they lived in. Instead of telling us about the nature of society we hear about it in the thoughts of Raeshalddis and her associates and learn even more through their actions and reactions to situations and people. This is a very difficult thing to do without it looking clumsy or contrived, but in the hands of Hambly it comes off beautifully.
Among the women the magic hasn't been selective, so those who have power have come from all classes. Aside from the Kings concubine and Raeshalddis there is another concubine named Moth, a Farmer's daughter named Pebbles, an old peddler/beggar woman named Pomegranate, an ex laundress Cattail, and Red-Silk Women and Foxfire are the mother and daughter respectively of the King's uncle. Of course this makes it all more discomfiting for the men of the upper classes.
In the past they have dealt with men who are near enough to be their equals when they've required the services of a mage. Now they must face the humiliation, in their eyes anyway, of having to ask an ex laundry woman for help. Those little touches are really what make this book so effective at not only describing the difficulties faced by the women, but also in defining the world they all live in.
In Circle Of The Moon Barbara Hambly has created a wonderful adventure/fantasy novel with great characterization and a highly believable world. While it can be read as a stand alone novel I would still suggest reading Sisters Of The Raven first. If for no other reason then for the added enjoyment of reading another book set in the Realm of the Seven Lakes.
Coming back for a second visit was like seeing old friends for the first time in ages, and being reminded of how much you liked them. To me that's a sign of a gifted author.