Home > Books > Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly

Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly

Well, here we go off into the mists of time again, this time courtesy of Open Road Media (as an aside, this is a most worthy project with the publisher bringing a number of very good books back into print as ebooks). Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly was originally published in 1994 and was nominated for the Locus Award 1995. Despite being a reasonably consistent reader of her work, I confess this one had sneaked by me.

The set-up is very much consistent with the reality in continental Europe in general and Britain in particular. Norah Blackstone is tragically widowed when she falls for an American soldier on his way to the front in World War I. It’s a fairly common story for that time in history when thousands married just before the war or as men were being sent to the front. Think of it as desperation telescoping emotions. Couples who might have courted for months, if not years, were stampeded into marriage in the knowledge they might never see each other again. Given the attrition rate in the trenches, tens of thousands of marriages were terminated by death and the women were left emotionally devastated. Worse, of course, their status was also blemished. Convention in those days was always less forgiving of widowhood. So after the 1918 flu pandemic takes her parents, Norah goes into the purdah of service with an unforgiving employer in Manchester until she’s rescued by the unexpected arrival of her sister-in-law, Christine, born Chava Blechstein and now a silent movie star whose screen name is Chrysandra Flamande. As the mistress of a Hollywood film producer, she gets starring roles even though she can’t act. She also has three Pekingese dogs, Black Jasmine, Buttercreme and Chang Ming, who need someone to look after them. This rescues our emotionally damaged Norah and unceremoniously dumps her into Hollywood during its heyday as the centre of silent movie production. Now all we need do is add in a necklace reputed to have been looted from the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City, and Alec Mindelbaum, a young man just starting out as a cinematographer.

Barbara Hambly at her birthday in 2005

In many ways, this evocatively titled book is rather cunningly constructed. It starts off as a fish-out-of water romance as our English widow comes to LA and meets Alec. Naturally, they are thrown together on the sets and, in due course, because of mutual interest. Half the fun is that he doesn’t fit the stereotype hunk profile. He’s short, fairly nondescript, bearded and wears glasses. Quite whether he has rippling muscles under the impoverished exterior is unclear (this is the typical unthawing and no-touching romance). Anyway, to get us moving, Keith Pelletier, a stunt double who wore the necklace during several scenes is brutally murdered, apparently by his gay lover, an ageing Brit called Charles Sandringham. On the same evening, there are also storms and the Pekes seem unusually restless around the star’s house. Ignoring the atmospherics, this introduces the notion that we’re into a detective mystery in which Norah and Alec will solve the murder and announce whodunnit.

Except we’ve got a subplot in the offing. A long time ago, Agatha Christie wrote an engaging novel titled, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? In this case, it would read, Why Didn’t They Ask Shang Ko? He’s an old man, recently arrived from China and he’s obviously got inside dope on a threat to Christine (Chrysandra). The fact he engineers a job as a gardner at her home adds fuel to the fire. That he turns up as an extra on the set just before there’s an attempt on Christine’s life is also indicative. However, when they finally do ask the question, they hear about Da Shu Ken, the Rat God of the North, the bringer of plague, misfortune and death. The link is the necklace which is appropriately called the Moon of Rats. So now we’re into the supernatural horror story that’s been hinted at from the start and, in all probability, a slight case of demonic possession explains how co-star Blake Fallon could suddenly switch from being a pathetic actor to one who seems inspired.

When you put all this together, you have an elegantly structured novel that exploits the natural uncertainty whether we’re to take the title seriously. Who would have thought the real romance intended as the focus of our attention was between Christine and the Rat God (some dating agency gets high marks for pulling off this blind date with a rising movie star). In the telling, we have some genuinely fascinating insights into the way the Hollywood studios worked in the early 1920s. There’s a small mountain of research seamlessly distributed throughout the text including clear indications of the appalling sexism and racism of the time. Barbara Hambly is also having fun and makes even the most jaded reader smile appreciatively. Finally, we’re allowed to see some genuine character development as Norah slowly comes to terms with her loss and asserts herself as an intelligent and independent-minded woman. Put all this as the set-up and then watch for the fireworks as the supernatural elements come to the forefront. The result is a timeless classic. Although set in the 1920s, it brings more universal sensibilities to bear making this a highly entertaining read, suitable for all ages and genders. I should make it clear the romance element avoids the usual excesses of mush that aim only at female readers. As a curmudgeonly male, I was caught up in the moment, including the one where Christine has to fend off the unwanted attentions of Blake Fallon. So Bride of the Rat God has enough supernatural high jinks for everyone to enjoy.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

  1. May 16, 2012 at 4:43 am

    Barbara Hambly has never felt comfortable with a genre unless she could play with it–certainly Bride of the Rat God is one of her best genre-benders.

    • May 16, 2012 at 11:47 am

      I’ve always thought the two James Asher novels superb examples of vampire fiction while the Benjamin January novels are great fun. I have read one or two others but never thought them as good.

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