Tanya Huff is another one of those Canadian authors I’ve shamefully never read until this year, but now I’m making up for that! Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light, which I read in the Of Darkness, Light, and Fire omnibus (yay, Oxford comma!), is Huff’s first published novel and the third one she wrote. In many respects this is evident from the novel’s plot and characterization. Nevertheless, it’s evidence that, even back then, Huff was on the track to being a strong voice in urban fantasy.
Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light is set in a hot summer in Toronto, presumably sometime in the late 1980s. It’s exactly what the title advertises: the forces of Darkness, personified in the form of an Adept of the Dark, have broken through the barrier that keeps heaven and hell out of the Earthly dimension. By upsetting the balance in this manner, the Adept of the Dark allows our protagonists to summon a counterpart, an Adept of the Light. Together, they form a group—a “circle”, if you will—to take on the Adept of the Dark and stop him from opening a gate (“of darkness”, if you will) that would, you know, be apocalyptic and all that.
You don’t really get much more basic with a fantasy plot than that. Most fantasy, stripped down to its bare parts, is just the struggle of Good versus Evil, Light versus Darkness. Huff makes this struggle explicit, with the Adept of the Dark tempting the various protagonists by trying to offer them deals (or threatening them) until they either give in or refuse and stay with the Light. There isn’t much in the way of moral ambiguity here. So you need to have a particular kind of tolerance for this type of fantasy to enjoy what’s happening.
Let’s assume you do. I did. I discovered that I really liked Rebecca. From the beginning, Huff uses her omniscient third-person perspective to portray the patronizing way people often treat those labelled as mentally-disabled by failing to recognize how they are more capable than they appear. It makes me think about the way I interact with mentally-disabled people—and I like it when a book makes me think.
The other characters, unfortunately, are less interesting. Roland is a typical twenty-something who isn’t interested in “getting a real job” but would rather busk with his guitar. (I’m not being critical of that attitude, just tongue-in-cheek of the way Huff so slavishly portrays the trope here.) He turns out to be the necessary Bard, and I admit that he goes on a pretty cool sidequest that allows him to develop more maturity and self-respect. However, he just never feels as genuinely interesting as Rebecca.
Then there’s Daru, whom I wish we learned more about. She appears after about the first third, and she plays an important role in the climax. Along the way we learn that she has remained strong-willed and determined despite the tendency of the social care system in which she works to beat down both those who run it and those who use it. But halfway through the book, it seems like Huff isn’t sure what to do with her until the climax, so she just sort of gets sidelined until she’s needed.
The climax literally involves a deus ex machina, which is not entirely inappropriate given the plot. However, I think the best adjectives I could choose for Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light would be “straightforward” and “uncomplicated”. This is not a novel that will tie your brain in knots. It doesn’t ask complicated questions or pose vast moral dilemmas. It’s straight up, winner-take-all Light versus Darkness, with the corresponding Adepts of the respective forces irritatingly nice and sickeningly charismatic.
I don’t mind that type of fantasy, though it isn’t my favourite aspect of the genre—it’s a little boring. But I suspect that many writers of fantasy go through a phase like this early on, influenced as most of us are by Christian mythology and juggernauts like Tolkien and Lewis. Huff is clearly still finding her legs here, but Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light makes her potential obvious.