This series is utterly delightful. It is, in fact, exactly what I was looking for when I attempted Jennifer Roberson's Sword Dancer, which so disappointed me. The Unschooled Wizard makes no pretensions to being anything more than a pure sword-and-sorcery novel, replete with heroic acts and larger than life characters played out against a highly romantic background, but the execution is flawless, the characters never cease being sympathetic (or devolve into caricatures) and, most importantly, there is plenty of humor.
Sun Wolf and Starhawk, needless to say, are stock characters. What so delighted me about this novel was that Hambly handled them like real people without ever losing what has made those stock characters so successful in the fantasy genre. She spent most of the novel inside their two heads, letting us see the pasts that made them what they are. And by staying in their heads so closely through all the action, we were also able to see the fears and doubts that neither character would ever share with those around him/her, maintaining both the realism for the reader and the virtual perfection for the observer inside the novel.
What set this novel apart even further from the run of the mill sword-and-sorcery novel was that that realism of character extended to all of the minor characters in the novel. Every character that has a speaking role is an easily identified stock character that Hambly makes completely three dimensional. Where this is most impressive (or at least most noticeable) is with the ladies of Mandrigyn. Most fantasy novels, even those written by women, have very few female characters. This may be because fantasy is usually action or politics oriented and women traditionally have not been leaders in those spheres; it may be because the female fantasy authors today grew up reading male fantasy authors who only introduced women to their novels as damsels in distress; it may be because women still grow up in a society that places more value on men. Whatever the reason, I have learned to enjoy the occasional strong female character in isolation from her own kind. Starhawk is this type of strong female character, and if the story had been about Sun Wolf and Starhawk in their mercenary band that is exactly what it would have looked like.
The pacing, though a little uneven through The Ladies of Mandrigyn, is fairly quick; while the battle scenes are not the clearest I've read, Hambly keeps most of that off-stage so she can focus on the dialogue and character-development; and the denouement of both novels, though I could see it coming a mile a way, earned a wry snicker from me. All in all, these first two novels of a trilogy are pure delight, and I will definitely be reading the third as soon as I can get my hands on it.