When I reviewed Barbara Hambly's Sisters of the Raven, I mentioned how I would be disappointed if there was a sequel, because it seemed to end at the perfect place and didn't need a sequel. In fact, I said that a sequel would "cheapen the magic that this one carries." Of course, she had to go and prove me wrong. With Circle of the Moon, Hambly builds on everything that she created in the first book, giving a logical extension to the events there and writing a book that is almost better than its predecessor. Not quite, but very close.
In a small desert society, the magic of men has disappeared. Sisters of the Raven detailed how some women discovered that they had some magical power of their own, and how that power became important. Circle of the Moon shows us the development of this magic as an even greater threat to the Yellow City emerges from the dead. As Raeshaldis, the only woman trained in the art of the old magics, works with the king's concubine, Summerchild, to discover why female magic works only sporadically, weird things start happening. Water monsters long thought extinct are terrorizing the coasts of the Seven Lakes. Some men are behaving in a monstrous fashion, turning into maniacs intent on nothing but destruction. Raeshaldis must figure out what is going on and how it relates to the various tombs scattered in the desert. Things become even more complicated when the King is challenged to a renewal of the ritual trials that proclaimed him King, and he discovers that it was the old magic, now seemingly non-existent, that stood in the way of the King dying. Can things get any worse? Of course they can.
Hambly once again gives us an extremely interesting society, where women are still treated as chattel but some women hold more power than many of the men. Summerchild is the power behind the throne, along with King Oryn's charisma and intelligence. With women now working magic, they may become even more powerful, and Hambly shows us all the different facets of this. Some use it for monetary gain, a power that is easily gained. Others use it to try and get a family member on the throne, and will stop at nothing to obtain that power. Meanwhile, a small circle of women (the Sisters of the Raven) try to help the king as well as figure out how their power works. It's all extremely fascinating, and Hambly weaves all of these stories into a tapestry that includes this grand threat to everything in existence, and she manages not to lose her way doing it. It helps that many of these stories are tied together, of course.
Once again, it's Hambly's power of setting that makes the book even better, though I can certainly see why some people wouldn't like it. She sets the scenes extremely well, describing everything that's going on around the characters as they walk and talk, or as they sit in the desert heat trying to keep cool. My mind's eye pictured every location vividly, and each character seemed even more human as they went about their business, discussing what they can do to help Summerchild as they eat what proves to be one of the few meals they're able to enjoy, for instance. Of course, this description can get tedious if you aren't hooked on the story, but this time there's no problem there.
Then there is the characterization, which Hambly performs with her usual aplomb. I said before that everybody seems human in this book, but it's much more than that. I really grew to care about the characters, even as some of the events in their lives are extremely predictable. Hambly seems to play coy with the relationship between Raeshaldis and Jethan, but it's obvious where it's going. Even so, how it develops says a lot about Raeshaldis and provides even more characterization for her. The loving relationship between Oryn and Summerchild is even better, even with Summerchild being out of the book for a long stretch of time. Hambly avoids the clich? of the handsome king and the beautiful queen. While Summerchild is quite pretty, Oryn is described as slightly overweight, almost pudgy. But their love is strong, and this makes them both seem even more realistic.
Even the bad people in the story are three-dimensional. There isn't really a "villain," per se, but Mohrvine is hungry for the throne and anxious for Oryn to fail the tests. But even he is humanized, helping Oryn when it's in his best interest to do so, and feeling an obligation to the Sisters who saved his daughter's life. His mother is the closest to one-dimensional, using her power cruelly in the hopes of saving her son's life and having him ascend the throne, but even she isn't too bad.
I haven't said much about the plot of the book, other than my description, but that's because it really should be experienced without many hints. When I discovered the secret behind the women's fluctuating power, I had to hit myself on the forehead, it was that obvious. But Hambly disguises it well, and what's happening with the rest of the story is equally intriguing. The final action sequences go on a bit too long, but that's the only criticism I can give to this book. Circle of the Moon is yet another winner from Hambly, and only the fact that I loved Sisters of the Raven so much keeps me from saying it's better. Combine these two books, and you have a wonderful series. And, best of all, Hambly leaves room for an obvious sequel, and this time I can't wait.