Barbara Hambly: Bride of the Rat God

I bought this new when I was still reading everything by Barbara Hambly (probably somewhere around its release date in 1994); I doubt I would have read it otherwise, and I’ve always felt that whoever was responsible for the title and cover did this book a disservice, though I’m not sure the marketing department knew what to do with it. On her site, she mentions that this was tacked onto the contract of another book the publisher wanted, and that it did not sell well at all. She also mentions an outline for a sequel (Curse of the Swamp Monster), but is not optimistic about its existence as an actual book. I do love this book, cheesy title and overdramatic blurbs and all:

Hollywood, 1923:

Gin, gems, and life in the fast lane…Chrysanda Flamande was the sultriest vamp of the silver screen. She had everything–fawning friends, glittering parties, exotic diversions, and baubles to spare.

Then an elderly Chinese gentleman warned her that the fabulous trinket she’d worn in her latest screen triumph had marked her to be the bride of an ancient devil-god of Manchuria. Chris paid him not the slightest heed–until the stunt double who’d also worn the jewel was hideously murdered.

The Rat God’s trap began to close. And as her doom stalked closer and her fair-weather friends fell away, Chris grew ever more desperate. But how could she thwart the mystical power and monstrous guile of the fiend that hunted her? What human force could keep the demon Rat God from claiming his unwilling bride?

This is mostly accurate; the timing of events is wrong (she was given a warning but didn’t find out the specifics until after the stunt double’s murder and an attempt on her own life), and the bit about the fair-weather friends is not true (they do end up avoiding Chris’ usual set of friends near the end, though). The cover features a dark-haired flapper-ish woman wearing an opal necklace (Chris is indeed dark-haired, which surprised me; I keep thinking of her as a redhead), burning oil rigs (in the story) and a random Chinese figure (not a person; I’m not sure if its intended to be the Rat God or one of the guardian dogs).

The cover and its blurb (“Too beautiful to live! Too wild to die”), the back cover copy, and the first page excerpt (part of the scene with the burning oil rigs) give the impression of an action/thriller/horror/pulp type story. I think the choice was made to evoke the sort of films Chris was appearing in; however, it has those elements but isn’t really that type of story.

The story is told from the point-of-view of Christine’s sister-in-law Norah Blackstone, who has been in LA for six weeks at the start of the book. Chris traveled to England to buy three Pekingese (trying to out-Chinese her friends) and brought Norah back with her as well. Norah had lost almost everything (her family’s money was invested in Russia and was lost, so she had to give up school; her brother and husband were lost in WWI and most of her family died in an influenza epidemic afterwards; neither her remaining family nor her in-laws would help her because she was not Jewish, but her husband was; and she ended up in service to a nasty woman and her lecherous son), and was contemplating suicide. The story is as much about Norah’s healing as it is about the Rat God.

I love this book, and I really wish I could express why, though I think part of it is that it’s about an adult having a second chance at happiness and love, and that is something I like (wish-fulfillment, in a way). It’s not as action-packed as the description sounds, though the action is there (along with a few scenes of horrific violence; Ms. Hambly does gruesome very well). It seems more slow-paced than it is; the action takes place over the course of a couple of months. A lot of it is quiet scenes between Norah and her eventual love interest, with the chaos of the set or parties in the background; they do fall in love kind of quickly, but it doesn’t seem like it because they spend a lot of time together just talking or working (she ends up acting as his assistant occasionally). I actually believe they could have a functioning long-term relationship.

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