Barbara Hambly, The Magistrates of Hell, ISBN: 9780727881588, Severn House, March 2012.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
“James,” said the vampire, and let his long, insectile fingers rest on the keys of the Assistant Trade Secretary’s piano. “What are you doing in Peking?”
The fourth James Asher novel follows on from 2010’s Blood Maidens, the long-awaited continuation of the series begun with Those Who Hunt The Night and Travelling With The Dead. The year is 1912. James Asher, formerly a spy in his country’s service and now, in his forties, a Professor of Folklore at Oxford, has come to China with his wife, Lydia Asher – a medical doctor and heiress of her own fortune – and their infant daughter at the insistence of his old friend, the elderly Professor Karlebach. Karlebach refused to take no for an answer, and so Asher has come with him all the way to Beijing, to investigate a report by a German missionary doctor, and the strange remains she found.
The reader heretofore innocent of the Asher books should be aware that in them, Hambly is writing vampire novels in the old-fashioned mode: as much horror as fantasy, deeply atmospheric in the way that Hambly has, where stray lines of description are sharp and chill as winter frost, and paragraphs build one upon another to a claustrophobic sensation of chest-gnawing dread. Hambly’s vampires are at once monstrous and seductive… but there are stranger things in Beijing than the vampires Asher knows, and even the “Others” may not be as dangerous as the humans who seek to harness them for their own profit.
In Beijing, Asher meets again the vampire Simon Ysidro, who has also been drawn to China to investigate the “Others.” Insofar as the living may trust the undead, Asher trusts Ysidro. Karlebach doesn’t: for him the only good vampire is a really, truly, properly dead vampire. When the fiancée of the British Trade Secretary’s son is murdered, and the son is framed for the crime, Asher is pressured into investigating this mystery as well. To his cost, he uncovers the reason behind the crime: revenge for the Trade Secretary’s own dirty secrets. Forced to fake his own death – with Ysidro’s help – he goes to ground. While Asher is in hiding, continuing trying to tease out the problem of the “Others” and where the vampires of Beijing (creatures that a mad long-undead Jesuit calls the “Magistrates of Hell”) are in all this, Lydia Asher is conducting her own investigation – and fending off importunate suitors from the diplomatic community.
She leaned back against the pillows, closed her eyes, and wondered if fainting when the subject of her widowhood was brought up would discourage the likes of Mr Edmund Woodreave, the Trade Minister’s Chief Clerk: ‘If at any time you need the solace of a loyal friend…’
Indeed! From a man I met precisely ONCE at the Peking Club…
I’m not, it must be said, entirely objective when it comes to Hambly’s work: much of what she writes hits my narrative kinks in a way that few other writers can reliably do. She has a historian’s eye for detail, and an understated vibrancy of wit and phrase, and I could very well gush with exclamation marks about all the things she gets right for me. Tense climaxes! Excellent characters! Sardonic humour! Proper vampires!
But this is a novel set in 1912 China, told from the point of view of colonisers. James and Lydia Asher are open-minded people, and Hambly does her best to extend her usual sympathy to the Chinese characters who cross her protagonists’ orbit, yet I’m left with a curious, niggling sense of discomfort when it comes to the portrayal of imperialism in the Far East. Hambly certainly doesn’t portray it as a net good, but it doesn’t change the fact it’s an unquestioned part of her protagonists’ milieu, with few countervailing arguments… and I’m too close to one of the products of British imperialism to be completely comfortable with it.
It’s possible I’m overthinking. Caveats aside, The Magistrates of Hell is an excellent novel from an excellent writer, and I recommend it highly.