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Interesting Variations on a Standard Theme
The Hob's Bargain
Partricia Briggs
There is a type of story that has become more and more common in mass-market fantasy -- the "noble-folk-magic-vs.-evil-or-stupid-monotheist-church" story. (Mercedes Lackey is a particularly prominent practitioner -- generally opting for the "evil" side of the question. Barbara Hambly likes the "misled Church with occasional Bad People in it" approach --particularly well used in Stranger at the Wedding.)

This book takes off from that situation, and elements of it walk throughout the text, but it's not *too* heavy-handedly applied.

I rather like the manner in which Briggs limits the scope of her action, thus giving herself a nicely-sized cast with a limited number of spear-carriers for author and reader to keep track of, but still conveying to the reader the manner in which the sort of society she has visualised depends on every member to get through the seasons.

Quick summary -- in a mountain valley in a world where the Church has banned magic, and the wild magic has been bound away, leaving only evil bloodmages able to practise magic, Aren, just married after having resigned herself to spinsterhood, has been hiding ther "taint" of being mage-born all her life.

Suddenly some event in a war going on somewhere else releases the binding on the wild magic, which begins to return; events attendant isolate the valley where Aren lives, trapping the locals and a troop of renegade mercenaries and preventing their contact with the Outside.

And Aren, suddenly widowed, begins to feel her gift come to life.

The story isn't complex, but it has some nice twists and turns in its development to what is, after all, pretty obviously inevitable relatively early in the book; i congratulate Briggs on managing to make if look as if Aren isn't, essentially, single-handedly saving the situation when, to a great extent, she *is*... While the other characters are generally at least interesting, and well-sketched, and brave and (many) skilled, if not for Aren and her banned-by-the-Church magical gifts (and the magical help they enable her to summon), the whole story would be shorter and less pleasant.

Actually, my favourite parts of the book, in general, were the varied "wildings" (magical beings who gradually return to the land after its magic is unbound at the beginning of the book) that Aren encounters and must learn how to either co-exist with, control, or defeat/banish, as she learns more about her abilities and as those abilities grow.

The wildings range from the will'o'the wisp and such, up through more powerful beings (ghosts and fetches and such), some friendly, some inimical, and some neutral.

And among the rather more powerful, and *probably* friendly, is the hob of Hob's Mountain, the last of his kind, who befriends Aren, offers to train her and to aid the villagers in their parallel struggles with raiders and bad wildings... for a price.

The price shouldn't be all *that* hard to guess.

The hob's sometimes sardonic, sometimes acid, sometimes gentle tongue and his general attitude that it may be a life-or-death situation but that doesn't mean you can't have *fun* rather reminded me of Emma Bull's poukha, which is a *good* thing to be reminded of.

((In fact, if you enjoy "The Hob's Bargain" and you haven't yet read Bull's "War for the Oaks", i recommend you seek out "War for the Oaks" immediately, a fantasy with a somewhat more-intense take on similar themes to this one, with a modern urban setting.))