Once, long ago, I recall walking through the Waldenbooks bookstore at my local mall, trying to find something new to read. After having crammed everything Middle-Earth related into my brain, I needed a new fix of epic fantasy adventure. Sure, I’d loved Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, read Moorcock, and begun The Belgariad with Eddings, but I was looking for something a bit different. And that is when I saw the cover of The Time of the Dark.
Obviously, my attention was caught by the image of a classic fantasy wizard – shadowy hood, long white hair, flowing beard, staff, and robes in the Gandalf mode – drinking a beer in a 1980-style kitchen. It struck me as a bit ridiculous. “Can’t be at all related to the story.” I thought to myself, as I stopped to read the description on the back.
But, you know what? After I read the cover blurb, I didn’t care about the fake cover anymore. Nope, this portal fantasy novel promised to give me something that my teenage mind adored: normal people from my time transported to a fantasy world under attack by man-eating creatures. A fantasy post-apocalyptic world is how I processed it. How could I not buy the book right there and then?
Once I paid, I immediately found myself a chair in the food court of the mall, impatient to get started reading (I was like that back in the day), and as soon as I started flipping pages, I was confronted by a nightmarish scene of a city being attacked by. . . Well, I didn’t know, because the main character didn’t know. What we both did know was that it was horrible; had to be since the people in this other world were terrified of it breaking out of a door. And, of course, right before the door was the wizard from the front cover, prepared to lay down his life as the first person to confront the monsters. But before the main character and I could see the fight for survival, Ingold Inglorion (that was his name I learned) sensed his ghostly peeping-tom and gently sent her back home to Earth.
Well, obviously, I was annoyed beyond belief at this point. Where was the fight? My god, I bought the book to see some good, old-fashioned sword fighting and magic using, not to have my narrator wake up in her apartment in southern California and go to work. I mean, we were standing in front of the door to what I assumed was the underworld! The bad guys were going to pour out and blood would flow. Why would the author leave out something so epic to make me follow along behind Gil Patterson, a graduate student!
But I went with it. Just the tantalizing scent of something familiar but exotic had me hooked, so I kept reading, learning about Gil’s life, her major (which I actually loved because I was a young history buff) and was nearly as surprised as she when we walked into her apartment kitchen to find Ingold Inglorion sitting there drinking a Budweiser.
The cover was not a flimsy sales pitch after all. It was straight from the story!
As Ingold finished his Bud and poured out the details of who he was, where he was from, and why he was in Gil’s apartment, I found myself further drawn under Ms. Hambly’s spell. The wizard’s explanation of his world and ours being so close together that people could pass back and forth between them got me interested, but as he began to talk of his land of Darwath and its fight to survive the rising of the Dark I became completely hooked.
A whole world on the verge of annihilation. A wizard saving the last prince of his country, a baby named Tir, by world jumping to escape from the terrible things that had erupted from that bound door and eaten a whole city of people; things that his land knew only as the Dark. Creatures of absolute blackness with cutting tentacles and tails that glide and fly through the night eating at will, snatching people up to return to the depths, and even able to suck a person’s mind clean, leaving them all but mindless automatons. And Tir was the only hope to save this other world from these killing machines; memories of the last time the Dark rose and how the ancients beat them back trapped somewhere in his subconscious, waiting to come out as he grew to manhood. But Ingold knew that even on Earth he and Tir were not safe, not for long at least, because the Dark would pursue them relentless: determined to destroy the only hope of an entire world. So, he politely asked for Gil’s help and promised not to stay for long — before ultimately taking Gil and a mechanic named Rudy back to Darwath.
Oh, what a cruel, cruel woman Barbara Hambly was. This lead up to Gil actually reaching Darwath was so interesting, so deceptively simple and addictive that by the time the portal to Darwath opened, I already knew this would be an all-night read. And I fondly recall sitting up into the wee hours of the night at home that very night (I eventually had to leave the mall after all) following along behind my new friends.
Once in Darwath, Gil and Rudy find themselves right at the epicenter of the total collapse of civilization. Everywhere they look is death and destruction; pathetic but normal people desperately trying to cling to sanity in a situation of insanity. Naturally, the pair cling to Ingold, hoping to return home, and trying to survive while they also attempt to find a way to help these people and themselves in this unfamiliar world of swords, magic, treachery, and monsters. While they do this, the Dark become much more than some vague threat over the horizon but a wielder of silent death, waiting for the sun to go down so that they can descend through the darkness on silent wings and feed. And during it all, the stupidity of the powerful is on display, as they try to hold onto their vestiges of power and riches in the face of total collapse of society. When finally the survivors decided to gamble their lives by leaving everything behind to make a Trail of Tears-like journey across the wintry lands to an ancient “Keep”, I myself was huddled in the dark of my bedroom glad that there were no “Dark” on Earth.
Complex yet simple, horrific yet fantastical, powerful yet humbling, The Time of the Dark has it all. It is and always shall remain one of my favorite fantasy novels and series.