This is another in a long line of read-so-long-ago-a-reread-feels-like-the-first-time books. I didn't remember a thing about it, except that I loved it then - and I loved it now.
The story centers around Aren, a woman who has lived in a remote farming village all her 29 years, and who had just about resigned herself to being a spinster when her father engineered a match for her. One reason the resignation wasn't as bad as it might have been, and why marriage isn't as simple as it might have been, is that she has a secret: she has a gift. She can see things that will happen (though usually not clearly enough to be very useful), and find lost things. Magic isn't just discouraged in these lands, it's hunted out; necromancers long ago found a way to suppress all natural magic and monopolize power for themselves, through bloodshed. Boys are given a choice of serving the necromancers (which could mean becoming a necromancer - but probably means dying) or ... dying. Girls with gifts have no choice - they are simply killed. Her brother many years ago chose to die under his own power rather than in any way fall under their power; a childhood friend wasn't, in many ways, so lucky.
And then, suddenly, one day everything changes. The necromancers' hold on magic is broken - and so is Aren's life when raiders maraud through her village. And they're not the worst of the dangers her people face, as with the loosing of magic, the wildings are returning - all the creatures of magic who have survived the long drought, most of whom are not fond of humans.
Except perhaps as lunch.
In short, the village is besieged, and isolated, and needs help - and Aren gambles on a legend and goes up onto the hill called The Hob, seeking the newly awakened creature also called the Hob, and the Hob's Bargain. Hobs are benevolent - but that doesn't necessarily mean that what he wants in exchange for helping them defend themselves will be easy to pay.
I loved this book. It has what is now (though not then) "paranormal romance" stamped all over it, from a not-great cover (which, along with something that looks like Kelsey Grammer's Beast, does, however, feature Duck) to the blurb on the back - and that's not fair. It could have been (Patricia Briggs was just cutting her teeth on this one) - but there were none of the trappings such things are saddled with now. For one thing, it gets about a PG rating, and that's for violence.
Characterization is always key for me; if I can't at least like someone the book is toast. Here I love all the main characters - not because they're all nice and sweet and good, but because they're real, they interact, they have histories and depth and their own lives. Aren is wonderful - prickly, smart, determined, strong - and still not a Mary Sue, with all of that. When Aren's friend Kith is "offscreen" I can believe he is off being the star of his own story; he doesn't just begin and end when he's featured in a scene. Caefawn is my hero - what a marvel of a race, and a marvel of a character. And I believe that's the best use of a tail I've ever seen. Even Aren's horse, Duck, is three-dimensional - Patricia Briggs is one of the writers who, as Judith Tarr puts it, Gets It Right when it comes to horses. And the evil necromancer is everything an evil necromancer should be.
It isn't, perhaps, a challenging read - and in fact I picked it up after Shadowfever with the intent of getting away from harrowing world-altering fantasy. There have been an awful lot of books in my currently-reading lists lately that involve entire villages razed and children lying dead in the streets. In point of fact, Hob's Bargain doesn't evade such things; there are some grim moments, as the world is altered here too, and such cataclysms are never gentle. But it was swift and beautifully written, and - in case I didn't mention it - I loved it.