Interesting Times, by Terry Pratchett

Yet another installment in my ongoing complete Discworld re-read project.

Well, I can see what he was aiming for.

The Discworld series began with the adventures of Rincewind the Wizard. This may not have been a good idea. Don’t get me wrong – The Colour of Magic was a good book, better than I had remembered it being and better than many fans of later Discworld give it credit for – in its singular way it was just as impressive as some of the later installments. And the character of Rincewind perfectly suited that book. But it was indeed a very singular book, and it clearly wasn’t immediately apparent to its author how (or perhaps even whether) a series of books could be wrung out of that setting (none of Pratchett’s novels to that point had had a sequel). The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery, and arguably Witches Abroad were all attempts to break away from the initial premise, while retaining some of its spark. You could even argue that the whole arc of Discworld has been a gradual dilution of that original zany, wild, unpredictable and magical world with increasingly large helpings of realism. A big part of that, unfortunately, was ditching the appealing but limited character of Rincewind. After 1988’s entertaining but inessential Sourcery, the character was ditched (apart from 1990’s short illustrated novella, Eric, later retrospectively shoehorned into the sequence) – virtually killed off – and Discworld rose to greater and greater heights in his absence.

It’s my hypothesis – the model I’ve been construction as I’ve gone through this re-read – that the second era of Discworld forms a thematic arc in which Pratchett attempted to say something he felt was important, until finally achieving this with his magnum opus, Small Gods. This involved not only a concentration of message, but also a honing of his skill. At the height of his powers, and free from the thematic impulses that had been driving him, he then looked around for some stories to tell, and this often involved going back and taking on older ideas with his new abilities. Lords and Ladies returned to Lancre, Men at Arms returned to the Watch, and Soul Music looked back to some extent to Reaper Man but to a greater extent all the way back to Mort, while also being a story he clearly wanted to tell about a subject close to his heart (rock music).

And that’s where Interesting Times fits in. Because now, finally, 11 years after The Colour of Magic and 6 years after Sourcery, Pratchett would try again to return to where he began.

And the most obvious thing is: it’s not just Rincewind. Pratchett clearly realised that Rincewind just didn’t fit in the world of Angua von Uberwald and Susan Sto Helit… so Interesting Times isn’t set in that world at all. It’s set in that strange mirror Discworld that we saw in the early novels – at least, that’s a passable theory if you want to go down that route. Add Interesting Times to the pre-Witches Abroad novels and it fits right in.

And you know that’s not entirely a bad thing. Because although we all, in hindsight, like to look down our noses at those books, I really enjoyed them. There was a sense of fun in them that later books rarely quite grasped, a sense that anything could happen, and they were also in my opinion with some exceptions funnier (they were also probably smarter, or at least more erudite). And I was reminded of this as soon as I opened Interesting Times. Oh good, I thought, we’re back to that kind of book – I may be glad we don’t live there anymore, but it sure will be fun to visit. The rules are relaxed a bit in those books. A scene like Rincewind’s introduction, where a castaway is confronted with a canoe of beautiful buxom Amazonian warrioresses who (very politely and a little awkwardly) beg him to help them repopulate their race one baby at a time after a strange a highly specific plague has mysteriously wiped out all their menfolk… that doesn’t happen in books where Susan and Angua and so on are there to look on disapprovingly. It casts us right back to a world that may not be entirely a parody of Sword and Sorcery novels, but that is in some way a contorted image of those settings.

And as stupid as it is, it’s funny.

And now I’m starting a fifth paragraph in a row with ‘and’, and part of me wants to celebrate that personal record while part of me wants to curl up with shame – but strictly speaking that’s nothing to do with the novel.

Interesting Times is funny. It’s funny even when it shouldn’t be – enough audacity and you can get away with a little stupidity, even a little offensiveness. My personal highlight? The scene with the sumo wrestlers. It’s idiotic and culturally insensitive, but I still laughed out loud.

Rincewind and the silly world he inhabits gives you the chance for that humour – the unsophisticated slapstick that’s always under the surface in Pratchett but seldom given free reign. It can also give you great pace and panache and jolly good read.

The problem is: how do you integrate Rincewind with the more conventional, more staid world that Pratchett has gradually been constructing? The answer of course is that you don’t. Pratchett wisely chooses to make the link between this novel and the rest of the ‘modern’ Discworld very tenuous – the only two major recurring non-Rincewind characters in the main plot were first introduced in The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic respectively, and neither has been seen since Sourcery. He also recognises that a Discworld book in that era did in some way need some link to the main sequence, and he very cleverly turned to the Faculty to provide that connexion. The Faculty don’t get all the love they deserve, in my opinion, because they’re not just great by themselves, they’re the sort of great that can go with anything. They’re in a broad parody-adventure in Moving Pictures, they’re in the most lunatic subplot in literature in the otherwise very sombre Reaper Man, they’re both comic and tragic (and tragically under-used) in the melancholy but thrilling Lords and Ladies, and they provided both silliness and humanity in Soul Music. They’re the one part of post-Small Gods Discworld that can fit in Rincewind’s world without difficulty, and here they provide key plot impetus, a grounding secondary plotline, and also considerable humour.

So where does it go wrong? It’s not the fact it’s all utterly ridiculous, nor the fact that much of it is culturally insensitive to the point of arguable racism. No, not at all. The problem is that it’s not stupid and insentive enough.

If you want to identify where Pratchett went wrong, it’s not in this book at all. The problem, you see, is a short story he wrote three years earlier, back before Small Gods, a story called “Troll Bridge”, which brought back Cohen the Barbarian for a meditation on the aging of individuals and of worlds and of genres. And there is very little wrong with it. It’s a brilliant little story – it made me laugh out loud and it brought a tear to my eye.

The problem is, Interesting Times isn’t Troll Bridge: The Novel. And it would like to be. The problem is, Cohen works in Rincewind novels, and Cohen works in “Troll Bridge”. But Rincewind does not work in “Troll Bridge”. In part, that’s because Cohen shouldn’t there either, and that’s the whole point. The story is all about how heroes like Cohen don’t have a place anymore, and it’s OK presenting a world, and a tone, where Cohen is out of place when the whole point is that he’s out of place. But put Rincewind in that world, and you have someone who’s not just out of place, he’s out of place in a non-symbolic, fundamentally pointless way.

When Pratchett goes wrong it’s almost always because he’s too damn ambitious for his own good, and that could certainly be said in this case, because here Pratchett tries to write three different novels at once. In one novel, Rincewind the silly cowardly wizard goes away and has some silly, hilarious adventures in parody-land. In the second novel, Cohen the Barbarian comes to terms with aging and confronts the fundamental insanity of his existence. These two novels simply cannot peacefully co-exist. Oh, sure, there are some nods between them thematically – Cohen does his share of silly things, and Rincewind gets the odd moment of reflection where we see how much he’s changed since, and because of, his adventures of the earlier novels (having gone back and re-read those outings and found a much more well-rounded and human Rincewind, I was a bit disappointed by how he turns out, and was greatly pleased to see that change explicitly addressed: Rincewind’s character arc itself parodies serious literature, because his bowel-wateringly terrifying world-saving adventures have actually caused character regression into a avoidantly post-traumatic weasel of a man). But fundamentally those two tones just don’t work, and each one undermines the other.

That’s what I mean about not being silly and offensive enough. You can get away with some quite offensive jokes, and some quite stupid jokes, if you make clear that you know how silly you’re being, if you make clear that you’re being ironic, and if you’re just damn fun enough and funny enough. If Pratchett had gone all out, he could probably have gotten away with more. But once you start looking serious about what you’re saying – as Pratchett has to whenever Cohen wanders on screen with some meditation about dying – the degree of difficulty in landing those troublesome jokes soars. Comedy is like a card trick – you need to distract your audience from what you’re doing, and Pratchett is giving himself dramatic close-ups at exactly the wrong time. And contrariwise, trying to reconcile the inherent silliness of Cohen’s character with the seriousness of his themes is a delicate balancing act that becomes impossible when you’ve got blunt instruments like Rincewind running around. [Meanwhile, the desire to have Rincewind in a semi-serious plot with little moving about means having to shove the Luggage off-page almost entirely – further evidence that Rincewind just doesn’t belong near this sort of story]

So those two novels don’t go together. And then on top of that there’s the third. The third one could be summarised: “Where Mao Zedong Went Wrong (And Why Everyone Else Is Wrong About Politics)”. This basically involves taking a bunch of stereotypes of Asian people and having Rincewind and/or the narrator lecture them about how stupid they are for their genetic trait of thoughtless antlike obediance, in a way that expands to take in everyone else in the world as well.

I have to admit, I often find Pratchett least effective when he’s talking about politics and political morality. His complexity and nuance sharpen to a hammer-face on these subjects. Perhaps he could have pulled off the politics lecture. But trying to add that extra level to a work that already feels torn in two thematically was just begging for failure. Failure that he gave himself no safety net to avoid, and failure that because of the way the book is set up is likely to give many readers an unpleasant aftertaste of racism.

In Pratchett’s defence, I don’t think he’s intentionally being racist. His Agatean Empire isn’t really China, it’s the bundle of tropes and clichés and assumptions that make up the common impression of The Orient; he’s not trying to explore what that lazy thinking really tells us about the Chinese (or Japanese, or Vietnamese), he’s trying to explore the role those tropes have in our own culture – he’s taking the parts of ourself that we project onto other cultures and analysing what they tell us about ourselves. He’s talking about ‘China’ that great mythical empire that lies within the European mind, not the China on the map with actual people in it. Now, maybe that falls into the sort of racism (well, one of the sorts of racism) Achebe accuses Conrad of, the racism of telling stories using other races without them being stories about other races – the racist assumption that the rest of the world is just there to let us learn about ourselves. I do see Achebe’s point here (though largely not elsewhere…), and I see how that argument works, and I can see that as a possibility that we should be aware of when we think we are contemplating any ‘Other’. But the thing about the Other is that it is Other, and all our attempts to tell stories about it will to some extent use it as a mirror for our own projections – unless we want to confine ourselves to autobiography (and even that underestimates the Otherness of our own lives, in my opinion), that by itself can’t be enough to condemn a book or an author. It is in the nature of mankind to make use of the world, including the other people in it – all our institutions are founded on the idea that people can be useful to one another. Perhaps the point is that there’s a difference between using someone for our own purposes and just using them for our own purposes – Achebe is wrong about Conrad because any knowledge of Conrad’s wider oeuvre, or his life beyond his fiction, or even an impartial and careful reading of Heart of Darkness itself must lead us to dismiss the idea that Conrad sees non-Europeans just as means to address European issues. [The SEP makes a similar point regarding the original Kantian injunction: “First, the Humanity formula does not rule out using people as means to our ends. Clearly this would be an absurd demand, since we do this all the time. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any life that is recognizably human without the use of others in pursuit of our goals... What the Humanity formula rules out is engaging in this pervasive use of Humanity in such a way that we treat it as a mere means to our ends.”]

Pratchett’s problem, however, is that at least in this novel there is little to the Agateans but puppets for his political theory lectures. He does not humanise his Agateans in the way that Conrad humanises his Congolese – and while he does criticise his Ankh-Morporkians, he does so in a very self-congratulating, glossy way (we’re better than them because we’re free-spirit and commit crime unlike those lawful spiritless apparatchiks) that feels a lot more smug and precarious than the savagery Conrad shows to his Europeans. Perhaps most importantly, he gives them no real agency: the Agateans, with the sole exception of the villain, are naive idiots who have to sit around waiting for a well-meaning Westerner to get them out of their problems. I mean, the problem is ‘solved’ literally by having someone pick up and use some stuff that was literally just lying around and that anyone could have used if they’re been a free-thinking Westerner instead of a poor Agatean drone. Even the villain is made to intentionally ape Ankh-Morporkian ways: sure, the ancient families of Hong, Tang, Fand, Sung and McSweeney (very old established family) are able to bring misery and slaughter to the continent for hundreds of years, but if you want some inventive villainry of course you need a European spark… in fact it’s striking just how little Pratchett concedes to the very idea of not looking like a bigot. I do think that Pratchett is being merely culturally insensitive, rather than racist, but in this particular book he does very little to help his case. The comparison between this and a book like Witches Abroad is stark. Or rather, it isn’t – Interesting Times is an entire book at the level of cultural observation of the first, pre-Genua half of Witches Abroad. But in Witches Abroad we do get to Genua, and we find a rich and complex and narratively powerful culture of heroes and villains and people in between; in Interesting Times we remain firmly stuck in a cross between elementary political history and kung fu B-movies. Even the Race of Magic-Jews in Feet of Clay is less tone-deaf.

[It may not be good that I’m reading this out of order, straight after Feet of Clay – a fine book in its own right, but one that primed me to look at the politics in Pratchett.]

Or hell, he could stick to his guns and attack Chinese culture wholeheartedly. Some of those tropes do have a real origin, after all (and Pratchett, as always, is perpetually toying with historical as well as literary allusions). But he can’t very well do that when he’s dealing in such broad and unexamined clichés.

It’s also worth talking about what those politics of his are exactly. I’ve pointed out several times the echoes of Chesterton in Pratchett’s work, but this time out it was almost as though he were channelling the old reactionary. And channelling someone who was reactionary in 1910 doesn’t play well in 2010. Don’t misunderstand me: there’s a great deal to be interested in in Chesterton’s political and moral views, and it’s no coincidence that there’s currently something of a revival in Chestertonian ideas on both the right and the left. But Pratchett here is doing Chesterton no favours, and singing the most fingers-in-ears conservative of Chesterton’s songs. Revolution is always bad just because the people would rather be left alone. Sure, liberal do-gooders may tell you that the starvation is unfair, that the dysentry and systematic rape and pillage are bad things it’s worth removing, but if you ask the average man holding a yak on a piece of string what he’d like, most of all in the world, and he’ll tell you he just wants a longer piece of string. The common man is Diogenean, it’s only the champagne-socialists who care about the ‘suffering’ of the poor, and they’re only pretending to care so they can do the oppressing themselves… Pratchett has always adored the hardworking, resilient poor (especially if they’re also enterprising criminals), but that attitude works much, much better close-up, dealing with people face to face (as in Vimes’ recollections of early life in the slums in Feet of Clay) than it does in the big picture. It’s one thing to admire people who are suffering, and quite another to use their virtue to justify suffering. That sort of partly works on the theological level – God tests us so we can show our virtues, evil exists because of the good of free will, etc – but it really doesn’t work when we’re talking about human social planners. Because in the end Pratchett may criticise the progressives for using the image of the poor (at arm’s length) to justify their own policies, but Pratchett is doing exactly the same thing only in the opposite direction.

The idea that the virtues of the suffering justify the existence of suffering is one of the places where three fin de siècle men who hated (or would have hated) each other come together: it’s a theme in Wilde, in Chesterton, and in Nietzsche. Pratchett doesn’t go near Wilde here, but alongside Rincewind’s Chesterton we get plenty of Nietzsche from Cohen. Cohen and his Silver Horde are the embodiment of Nietzsche’s master race, his ‘blond beast’, and Pratchett jokes happily about how many people they’ve raped and how fun rape is and isn’t butchering innocents great and isn’t it really the peaceful lawful people who are the true monsters. There is, of course, something powerful in Nietzsche – he wouldn’t have appealed to generation after generation of teenagers otherwise – but Pratchett take Nietzsche at his most abhorrent, and delivers his views with little subtlety. I think, perhaps, that Pratchett is assuming his readers will all be able to give the conventional-morality side of the argument themselves, with Teach to give them the occasional prod in the right direction, but frankly it comes across as almost complete glorification of this world-view. Particularly, of course, since this lecture is playing in the same theatre as the Chestertonian one Rincewind is delivering next door. It’s worth pointing out again the contrast between this and “Troll Bridge” – in the earlier story, Pratchett is able to achieve that melancholy grandeur, that paradoxical nostalgia for a world of fear and barbarity, precisely because it is clear all along that Cohen and his way of the world are obsolete, are destined for oblivion before too long. That’s I think meant to be how Interesting Times plays as well – but because there’s meant to be an actual plot with suspense there’s far too much of a feel that Cohen may actually be right. It’s not helped by the plot necessitating that Cohen has to often not just be right about things but right in a common-sense ‘guy who has his head screwed on’ kind of way. It’s interesting to contrast how this plays out with how Tolkien handled similar material. Tolkien (pace Moorcock et al) succeeds in hitting melancholy lament rather than reactionary screed in large part because while he acknowledges that something precious is being irrevocably lost when the great powers and beauties of the past “diminish, and go into the West” he also accepts that this is not only inevitable but actually good for the world, that domestic comfort is better than the bright lights and deep darks of the older world. I think Pratchett also hits this tone in “Troll Bridge”, but misses it in Interesting Times, and we are left with too much Nietzscheanism to excuse, but not enough to actually argue its own case.

What we have in Interesting Times, then, is an attempt to put forward two distinct but similarly controversial reactionary ideological platforms, at the same time as giving us a melancholy meditation and at the same time as providing us with a zany, silly comedy adventure, all against the backdrop of a poorly-realised setting that at best must be considered culturally insensitive. Any one of those ambitions, maybe any two, Pratchett could probably have achieved impressively, but all of them at once is a hurdle that’s just too high for any author, even him. Perhaps most damagingly of all, however, he’s trying to do all this in a book that’s much too short for the thematic content, but already too long for what in essence is a quick and simplistic plot. As a result, the book is both crammed and stretched, and the result is that it bogs down considerably for most of its length before petering off into a stop-start finale that fails to satisfy.

Of course, this is Terry Pratchett. No Terry Pratchett novel is a waste of time. This is OK-enough light reading, particularly if you switch your brain off. Indeed, just in case it got lost in all the criticism I’ll re-iterate: I thought the book started off very well – different from the books around it in the sequence, but nostalgic and very funny. Unfortunately then the plot kicks in. There’s more than enough material here, both dramatic and comedic, but in my opinion this book ought to have ended up a breakneck adventure half the length with a great deal of the sightseeing and the lecturing stripped out. More like The Colour of Magic, in other words. The book that resulted from that might not have been a literary classic, but it would have been extremely fun. Instead we got a book that has glimmers of a great wit, but a great deal of objectionable content… and its worst sin is that it bogs down too heavily to be great fun. Some Pratchett books can survive close examination; some avoid it by being smashing read; unfortunately, this is a book with a vulnerable underbelly that has also chosen to roll over and sleep on its side in front of the audience. It’s not a good combination. The attempt to unify later-Discworld didactic storytelling with early-Discworld whacky hijinks was given the worst possible chance by the other narrative choices, and unsurprisingly it mostly failed.

To sum up: if you’re a Pratchett fan who has read everything else, you don’t need to actively avoid Interesting Times. It has some good lines, some good scenes, it’s not a disaster. But it’s not exactly something I’ll be recommending casual fans rush out and read.

 

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 2/5. There are some gripping scenes, but there’s just too much filler in between.

Emotion: 3/5. OK, so the melancholy elements do touch a bit of a nerve. A bit.

Thought: 2/5. Honestly, this is one that’s best not thought about. It does, to be fair, raise some interesting questions, but they’re questions that for their own sake would be better not raised until the raiser has a bit more material assembled re: answering them.

Beauty: 2/5. What’s beautiful here? I guess there’s a bit of heroism and sacrifice. There’s also some blunt stereotyping and some ham-fisted characterisation and a lot that seemed tired and uninspired.

Craft: 3/5. OK, so there really are some great lines. And a clever element to the plot (although the rest of it was both predictable AND unapologetically reliant on wild coincidence). And Rincewind is an impressive character in his own way, and so is Cohen. And the Faculty stuff was all good. And I liked the beginning. But… yeah, there are some problems.

Endearingness: 2/5. I can cope with annoying and I can cope with dull, but at times this book was both dull and annoying. Of course, there was also enough here that I can’t write it off entirely – it was funny in places.

Originality: 3/5. Felt somewhat derivative both of his own work and of wider tropes. I suppose its very audacity, however, makes it a little bit distinctive.

 

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. Numerically, the above review puts this equal-worst of all the Discworld books so far, level with The Light Fantastic. Let me be clear: this is a better book than The Light Fantastic. Is it better than Eric? Debateable – there’s more good content here than in Eric, but it’s also a longer book and less able to get away with the ‘quick fun read’ excuse. Is it worse than Sourcery? I… think… probably, yes. It’s more professionally done than Sourcery, and more structurally sound, but Sourcery was also really good fun, despite its flaws. Sourcery really committed. And Equal Rites – if you think of Equal Rites as a book for older children, I think EQ is indeed better than IT at what it does.

Overall, I think I’m maybe being a little harsh here. It’s not a wreck of a book. Unfortunately, coming after a run of Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies, Men at Arms and even the flawed but enjoyable Soul Music, and indeed coming before a run of Maskerade, Feet of Clay, and Hogfather, this just isn’t up to expectations. And that’s a great shame, because I wanted to see what Pratchett would do with this material. Saying as some might that Interesting Times is a lazy book phoned in for the paycheck would be doing it a disservice and failing to understand the nature of its flaws. Pratchett was actually trying to do something different here. It just didn’t really work.

Still, as the headline says: in the wider scheme of books, compared to things that aren’t Pratchett novels… it’s not bad.

Reading List Revamped…

…so I’ve finally gotten around to revamping my old posts on a fan poll I did years back that aimed to produce a recommended reading list for the SF&F genre.

The page is up over here.

Falarandru: Primitive Society

In which I finally get around to posting some notes on the society of the alien species whose biology I briefly described six months ago.

Falarandru in ‘a state of nature’, like many species, are unlike humans in lacking a monolithic social structure: falarandru in a given area will form groupings of two different kinds, neither set of which can be seen as a subordinate to the other.

One type of structure may be called a ‘den’. Dens are small, gynocentric, and remain in a single location so long as this is possible. A den may contain anywhere from a handful to two dozen adult falarandru, typically with slightly more females than males. The females form the core and definition of the den: ideally, there may be two or three young females ready for breeding, two or three slightly older females with young, two or three old, wise females, and perhaps a few more decrepit females. Alongside these females are males, who form three wholly distinct classes: alphas, betas, and gammas. In each den there is one alpha or resident, or sometimes two (brothers or very close friends) – dens with three alphas are exceptional, while those with four are rare, and those with five or more are mythical. Alphas have breeding rights to all the females in the den, and typically are, at least in theory, in control of the whole social grouping, although this is rarely an outright tyranny (males remain alphas until death or retirement, but upsetting all the females in a den is a good way to achieve the former rapidly – it is not the done thing for females to simply murder their alpha, but it is perfectly possible for them to recruit another male to do it for them). Beta males, or peripherals, do not live in the den itself, but nearby, and socialise extensively with den members; they assist with guard duties, food collection and so forth. In exchange for their services for the females and loyalty to the alpha, they are granted occasional breeding rights with the females. Gamma males, or transients, do live in the den, but only briefly, and are usually younger males. They are permitted to reside with in the den for a season or two before being forced out. They are the lowest-ranking members of the den group, but can exercise some breeding rights – these are usually not granted formally (the alpha can attack or eject a gamma found breeding with the alpha’s females), but are generally recognised through non-enforcement (alphas will typically ignore the activities of gammas, provided they are rare enough and secretive enough not to appear a direct challenge). Most breeding events occur between females and gammas, although due to the transience of the gamma position and their greater numbers, an individual male will breed more often as a beta or an alpha than as a gamma – additionally, gammas will be limited to breeding at less favourable times. [Female falarandru are sexually active throughout the year, but only give birth (in nature) in the spring; their bodies can store sperm for over a year to be used when they finally ovulate, but it reduces in volume over time through internal competition, and so it is more favourable to breed with a female when she is about to ovulate]

Most males are not alphas, nor even betas, and only briefly gammas. Most males, however, would like to be alphas. Male life is therefore defined by the desire (not universal, but general) to take over a den. This cannot be done by brute strength alone: males are larger than females, but not so large that they can dominate a den of females with force. Males must seduce a den through a combination of threats and gifts – and both of these require assistance. One male cannot do it all on his own. Unfortunately, falarandru are not naturally obedient, and it is difficult to sustain hierarchies among them: they must be constantly reinforced.

When males leave the den on reaching their juvenile stage, they join a ‘gang’. These gangs, unlike dens, are androcentric, large, and migratory – they occupy a large territory shared with many dens, and often with one or more ‘rival’ gangs, which compete for female attention and for resources, but which will typically ally with one another against any gangs arriving from elsewhere. The territories of rival gangs do not coincide, but rather overlap – the hostile neighbour of one gang will co-habit the first gang’s co-habitors – making large-scale conflicts difficult except in case of migration or resource shortfall. Gangs rarely migrate long distances, but their territories do gradually shift over time.

Gangs are oriented around the need to impress females. This produces hierarchies, with those at the top most attractive to dens, and those below working to increase the attractiveness of their superiors. These hierarchies in turn are established through two mechanisms: dominance and alliance.

Dominance establishes one male as superior to another. It may involve physical combat, although this is typically ritualised; it almost always includes sodomy, with the superior male penetrating the inferior. However, it is misleading to think of an absolute and unidirectional hierarchy of males established through sodomy – the question is not which male is dominant over the other, but where the balance of dominance lies between the two (typically measured by the relative frequency with which each male is the penetrator). Dominance must be continually reinforced to be applicable – as a result, falarandru have relatively fluid social structures – and hence the strength and clarity of any social bond is measured by the frequency of copulation. Consequently, falarandru males tend toward the obsessive in these matters – not only is sex enjoyable, but it is also essential in establishing their place in a social structure, and so sex is their default reaction to any changing situation, where time allows. This applies just as much for males of lower rank: not only have they evolved to find the experience of being penetrated somewhat pleasurable, there are also considerable advantages to acquiring powerful benefactors – it is better to be dominant than subordinate, but it is far better to be subordinate to powerful males than to be socially isolated.

Alongside this – at least theoretically – adversarial system of dominance is an equally important system of alliances. An individual male can establish relatively little by himself, and so the aid of others is essential. Networks of mutual assistance therefore develop, centred on close bonds between allies (often childhood den-mates). It is most often a male’s web of alliances that gives them the power that the dominance hierarchy formally recognises.

This is also part of the reason for the relative autonomy of the dens from the larger gangs. Because female falarandru are not discernable as female until they reach maturity, and spend their long juvenile period indistinguishable from males, females are not isolated from male power structures: they develop the same early bonds of friendship, enter into the same hierarchical structures within the gangs, develop the same benefactors and protégés, and take those connexions into their lives within the den. Once they have become visibly female, they cease to directly participate in gang power structures – for one thing, they lose their penis and hence their ability to partake in status-confrontations – but their existing social relationships do not simply disappear. A falarandru female is therefore not merely the sister or daughter of a male – she is also someone’s comrade, blood-brother or mentor. This makes any violent confrontation between the sexes both emotionally and politically more difficult. This existing political power is then supplemented by the power of sexual access (and indeed all social access – although male falarandru can have perfectly satisfactory sex lives among themselves without ever talking to a female, they nonetheless appear to be instinctually fascinated and a little awe-struck by the female sex, and will view any interaction with females as welcome and enjoyable, even if it does not lead to sexual opportunities).

Contrariwise, the pre-adult occlusion of females no doubt helps to ameliorate competition within the gangs. Although males seek dominant positions within the gangs from which to negotiate their way toward some access to females, they cannot be too ruthless in this competition – any rival deeply offended when both individuals are juveniles may well herself be revealed as female, and liable to spread her poor impression of the over-forceful social climber to her new den-mates.

It’s also worth making clear that the gang is not itself a monolithic hierarchical structure. Young members enter into a broad range of relationships with each other and with older members; but over time, different young gang members will gravitate into more closed sub-networks within the broader social structure. These sub-networks, or ‘factions’, typically develop a single leader-figure – gangs as a whole typically do not. Gangs are thus governed by consensus between internal factions, and if they have a notional leader this is likely to be a figurehead, or at most ‘bureaucratic’, position, subordinate to the individual faction-leaders. Nonetheless, the ‘faction’ is not always a conceptually pure division – the tendency for older and more senior gang-members to primarily socialise within their own faction is only a tendency, and almost all will have relationships across the gang as a whole, while factions may themselves have sub-factions, either as semi-permanent power structures or as transient vehicles for specific powerful individuals. The faction, likewise, is part personal power structure and part institution – they do not usually simply disappear when the faction-leader dies or leaves, but their exact character and extent and influence are to a degree shaped by the senior members. Factions can thus often be more temporary than gangs, and liable to dissolve if the next generation of leaders is uninspiring. On the other hand, factions can outlive gangs: if a faction is not contented with its place in a gang, it can simply leave en masse, either to found a new gang or to join a rival one. It is not unknown in some cases for a gang to entirely fragment into its constituent factions.

The dominant figures in a gang are therefore the faction leaders and their immediate subordinates, and some more consensual figures associated with co-ordination between factions. None of these males, however, are likely to become resident alphas. Maintaining dominance over an entire gang is simply too much effort, and these individuals must devote themselves to the gang – both egoistically to maintain their own power and altruistically for the good of their gang. Falarandru are almost always aware of their own power position and conscious of threats and opportunities, but they are not notably egoist – most will put the good of the community (in the abstract) and in particular of their friends and dependants (in specific) ahead of their own good, if ever a clear conflict between the two were to arise. Indeed, these two virtues – patriotism to the collective and paternalism toward client-inferiors – are among the most important assets for a falarandru seeking power and prestige. No male can achieve great power without self-centred ambition (which is indeed considered a desirable trait in moderation) – but nor will they be permitted to achieve it if that ambition does not appear balanced by virtue.

On the Genealogy of Morals, 11

Part of my ongoing commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

The First Essay is rather scattergun in its approach – one reason why my comments have been so long, since N. produces a constant stream of interesting remarks, often tangential to his purpose.

It’s fatuous to try to boil all of that down to a precis, and such a summary would necessary leave out (/leaves out) a lot and simplifying the rest. In essence, however, it is probably fair to perceive six main thrusts of what he is saying here:

  • it is wrong to look at accounts of mankind that see man as passive before impersonal forces – rather, history should be explained through active decisions and desires
  • in point of fact, originally, the rulers created language to impose their will and reflect their attitudes
  • the rulers were overthrown and their language distorted, creating new values
  • the values of the masters are founded on self-love; the values of the slaves are founded on other-hatred
  • specifically, the masters were dangerous and violent men, and the slaves are meek and praise passivity
  • the lack of danger in mankind breeds contempt for mankind and a turning against life
  • the ‘positive’ values of Christianity, democracy, liberalism, pacifism and so on are expressions of hatred

What can we make of these? Obviously, any answer would be (/is) presumptuous. But for what it’s worth, I think:

  • the idea of seeing man as commanding rather than commanded is wishful thinking on Nietzsche’s part, with no real reasons given to support it
  • Nietzsche’s attempts at history and etymology are flawed to the point of being ludicrous and thus it is not really viable to accept his account of history as in any way accurate in a literal sense
  • Nietzsche’s observation that values can be founded on perception of the self or on perception of the other is a very interesting one, but needs more exploration, particular in separating out this locus-of-value from the polarity of value issue (hate vs love)
  • Nietzsche is surely onto something when praising dangerous men – it’s the soul of every Western, for instane, most war films, plenty of crime and detection films, action films, and so on. There is no doubt something admirable about dangerous men. But is that admirable thing really enough to outweigh all that is repellent about them? There is something lost in the loss of glory and danger, but is what is lost greater than what has been gained? And Nietzsche is surely correct in saying that the passivisation of mankind has bred a sort of self-contempt, a tendency to regard people as interchangeable mechanisms… but surely there was also contempt among the Vikings and the Goths and the Romans, albeit of a different sort?
  • Nietzsche is accurate and clever in pointing out how ‘good’ people can sometimes have very ugly motivations for being ‘good’. But he is much less compelling in the suggestion that this is true of all ‘goodness’.

Nietzsche’s strength is certainly in challenging perceived certainties. He is much weaker in presenting a compelling vision of his own. And much of how we assess Nietzsche’s work may come down to what we think he was doing. What is a genealogy? As a history, it is frankly a failure. As an attempt to ‘subjugate the past’, it is little better – it is not robust enough to subjugate anything. Its greatest value, I think, is subversive: by showing how certain ideas could arise, how certain attitudes can sometimes be linked to certain other things, it encourages us to question our own preconceptions. Even if we exonerate ourselves on Nietzsche’s charges, the fact we have been led to put ourselves in the dock in the first place can be a powerful first step in its own right.

Unfortunately, though later ‘genealogists’ may perhaps have been content with metaphorical and hypothetical histories, Nietzsche really does seem to be trying to offer a genuine historical analysis. This analysis must be – and was – judged a failure by the standards and knowledge of his time, and a disaster by the standards of what we now know about history.

 

 

EDIT: incidentally, is this the first appearance of the idea of Self and Other in this sense (the sense of self requiring the creation of an Other than is then looked down upon)? I know that a lot of the Continentals who popularised the terms in the following century were Nietzsche fans. I’m also aware that he of course wasn’t the first to discuss the general ideas of self and other, which of course are hard to avoid in philosophy – in particular, I’m thinking of the Fichtean ego positing the other as what limits its own action, and of course there are elements in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. But I suspect Nietzsche may have been first or near-first when it comes specifically to the mutually-constructing-through-negation “Self” and “Other”?

On the Genealogy of Morals (10)

Tenth part of my on-going commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

14.

Joy of joys: a dialogue. And we can all guess how this is going to go:

“…There’s no doubt about it—things are just as you said they were.”

Yes, it’s one of those hard-hitting dialogues. Anyway, the more important bit there is where the interlocutor says that ‘weakness is being falsified into something of merit’. It’s tempting to protest that Nietzsche has no grounds for saying that weakness is without merit, without presenting some clear grounds for his own value system. But that might be a little too hasty. If we accept that there are goods, and that things that help us obtain what is good have merit, then perhaps we can say that ‘weakness’, which prevents us from obtaining anything, is inherently without merit… without us having to make any definite claims about what things really are good. We don’t even need to believe in an objective good, or in an absolute good – even if ‘good’ is just a figment of our imagination, we can all agree, if we use the word ‘good’ appropriately, that it’s not good to be unable to obtain the good. And ‘weakness’ could indeed prevent us from (reliably) obtaining any good. Indeed, Nietzsche’s attempt to portray weakness as a form of violence undermines even the attempt to give weakness an inherent value of its own – its value would undermine itself (assuming we are debating against someone who is praising weakness for traditional ‘moral’, ‘Christian’ reasons).

No, the real problem here is that Nietzsche doesn’t adequately show that his notion of ‘weakness’ is really weak; without that, the attempt at an ad hominem attack on weakness fails entirely. Similarly, he is unconvincing in showing that it is violent or ugly.

“They are miserable—there’s no doubt about that—all these rumour-mongers and counterfeiters in the corners, although crouched down beside each other in the warmth—but they are telling me that their misery is God’s choice, His sign. One beats the dog one loves the most. Perhaps this misery may be a preparation, a test, an education, perhaps it is even more—something that will one day be rewarded and paid out with huge interest in gold, no, in happiness. They call that ‘blessedness’.”

Here Nietzsche gets a bit more specific, and seems a bit more convincing. People make the most of their situation by, like Stoics, revaluing it, by accepting it, by even taking ownership of it (‘that incapacity for revenge is called the lack of desire for revenge’). It’s hard to deny that for many people in many places, impotence in situation has lead to a religion that makes humility a virtue and shifts the deserved rewards into the afterlife. We start seeing some cracks when we ask about universality – is it true that every humble person is weak and impoverished? No, clearly not. They may even issue from among the powerful and the arrogant. The argument really falls down, though, when we look at the other side. Yes, the poor and the weak tell themselves they are blessed to assuage their own misery… and the strong and the rich and the powerful? Are they really joyous, free and unconcerned? Those blond beasts, those Goths and Romans, knights and samurai, were they happy? Or were they doing exactly the same thing – consoling themselves with the assurance that they were special, blessed, and with fantasies of triumph and heroism that never really reflected the lives of the ordinary chieftain? Let’s think again of the great and melancholy champions of the Gaels, of the dirges and laments of the Saxons, of the great mediaeval tragedies. The mighty have been just as prone to sadness and self-delusion as the weak.

“…What they hate is not their enemy. No! They hate ‘injustice,’ ‘godlessness.’ What they believe and hope is not a hope for revenge, the intoxication of sweet vengeance (something Homer has already called ‘sweeter than honey’), but the victory of God, the righteous God, over the godless…”

Just in passing, I’d like to point out the ‘phantasmagorical’ nature of Nietzsche’s own perception of history. He wants to see the Romans among his master races… but can anyone seriously suggest that Rome was not interested in ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’, as distinct from simple personal vengeance? Indeed, even the Germanic tribes – once upon a time, the ruler of their pantheon was Tyr, the god of both impartial justice and heroic glory…

 

15.

Now Nietzsche is in full ad hominem mode. He again accuses the meek and the humble:

There’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, some day their “kingdom” is to arrive—they call it simply “the kingdom of God,” as I mentioned. People are indeed so humble about everything! Only to experience that, one has to live a long time, beyond death—in fact, people must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the “kingdom of God” for that earthly life…

There’s no doubt Nietzsche is speaking truly of some religious people, who rejoice vicariously in the bullying they expect their god to perform on their behalf. And he has an interesting point in suggesting that some religious people, in aiming at an unknowable afterlife, make sacrifices in their real lives, and to some extent in the process devalue their own lives. Terry Pratchett puts this pithily, by the way (assuming it’s not from Chesterton), when he observes (Feet of Clay) that those who save up a little money for a rainy day, even if it’s pouring now, many times also put a little life by for a rainy eternity.

But is this really true of all religious people – let alone all humble and meek people in general? And after all, it’s not as though those two categories are the same. Many Christians who have rejoiced in the violence of the Lord have eagerly pre-empted Him in that regard: Nietzsche’s accusations of hidden hatred may seem very applicable to witchfinders, steel-caparisoned archbishops with maces in their hands, or to the Abbots of Cîteaux, but are these really exemplars of the lambs?

Nietzsche goes on to provide some concrete evidence: a brief quotation from Aquinas in which St Thomas says that those in heaven will be even happier because they can watch the evil being tortured, and then a very lengthy and bloodthirsty piece by Tertullian in which he rejoices in all the torture and destruction that will be visited on his enemies, and how even just the thought of how they will be tortured is much more enjoyable than the heathen pursuits (races, athletics, theatre) of the evil ones. But again, are these realistic representatives of ordinary ‘lambism’? Tertullian was enthusiastic about hell, but also enthusiastically condemnatory of theatre, sport, music, sex, women, the faces of virgins not being veiled, women wearing jewellery, usury, dice, eye-shadow, women again, remarriage, and actually more or less anything that didn’t involve fasting. He was so hardline that even the early church, itself fairly devout, felt that he went too far. I don’t think we can take one disturbing fantasy of his as representative of all modern civilisation. Aquinas is more troubling, given his stature, and his generally high level of sanity – but if the worst Nietzsche can do is find a brief subsidiary argument suggested by the Ninth Doctor, I find myself underwhelmed. Perhaps the angelic one was simply having a bad morning and his sinful neighbour had really irritated him – it’s hardly reasonable to take this passing remark as exposing the core of his entire personality and motivation, let alone, the entire soul and essence of Christianity and Nonbastardism.

 

16.

A bulky section, but only a conclusion, with little further forward motion of its own.

We could even say that in the intervening time the battle has been constantly drawn to greater heights and in the process to constantly greater depths and has become constantly more spiritual, so that nowadays there is perhaps no more decisive mark of a “higher nature,” a more spiritual nature, than that it is split in that sense and is truly still a battleground for those opposites. [sc. the opposing moral systems of good/bad and good/evil]

This is an interesting suggestion, but somewhat out of keeping with the rest. What Nietzsche really seems to admire is the victory of good/bad, rather than just the ‘battleground’ between them – when the master-morality was dominant, were Nietzsche’s sympathies with the slaves who challenged it, in whom there was a battleground between the old morality and the new? Hardly.

In Rome the Jew was considered “guilty of hatred against the entire human race.” And that view was correct, to the extent that we are right to link the health and the future of the human race to the unconditional rule of aristocratic values…

I have the strangest feeling there’s some sort of slight objection that might be made here, but I just can’t put my finger on where that weak point might be…

(Incidentally, we must not underestimate the deep consistency of the Christian instinct, when it ascribed this very book of hate [sc. Revelation] to the name of the disciple of love, the same man to whom it attributed that enthusiastic amorous gospel—: there is some truth to this, no matter how much literary counterfeiting may have been necessary for this purpose)

Incidentally incidentally, the deep consistency of the Christian instinct has been rather inconsistent, since it was considered debateable right from the beginning whether the John of the Revelation was indeed the same as the John of the Gospel and/or the Epistles, and to a lesser extent whether any of these were the same as the Apostle John. Nietzsche is as usual strawmanning somewhat here.

The Romans were indeed strong and noble men, stronger and nobler than any people who had lived on earth up until then or even than any people who had ever been dreamed up. Everything they left as remains, every inscription, is delightful…

OK Romans, fess up, which of you has been brainwashing Nietzsche to be your love-slave?

N. goes on to be bitter about the ‘three Jews and one Jewess’ who have taken over the world – in particular, he seems oddly offended by the idea that one of them, Paul, is only a ‘carpet maker’. [Nietzsche, incidentally, was the son of a retired local school teacher turned Lutheran pastor, and having found a place at an elite school on his personal merit spent the whole of the rest of his life in the company of his social superiors. It’s hard not to read a little Stockholm Syndrome into his adulation of an aristocracy who would have had near as much contempt for him as he had for the lowly carpet maker Paul]

He’s a big fan of the Renaissance, which he sees as the return of masterly morality, later stiffled by the Reformation. It’s a strange view: were the bustling young mercantile republics and experimental democracies of the renaissance city-states somehow less democratic, more masterly, than the sword-swinging warrior elites of mediaeval feudalism?

It’s interesting, incidentally, that Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde (who would have hated each other yet often seem to singing over the same continuo) both identify the role of the renaissance in this way, yet in opposite directions. For Nietszsche the renaissance is a recurrence of the dangerous, the noble, the strong; but Wilde laments (in De Profundis):

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.

Goes to show how the same things can be interpreted very differently by different observers, no matter how self-evident Nietzsche seems to consider his own narrative.

Anyway, Nietzsche closes the section by lamenting the fall of the Ancien Regime as the end of the great old nobility (which I think would more often conjure up words like ‘lazy’, ‘decadent’, ‘obese’, ‘vain’, and ‘gout-ridden’ than words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘healthy’; on the other hand, Robespierre does not strike me as a genuine ‘lamb’ of a bitter but inactive kind…), but admits that in the process there was a brief flaring of the older morality in the form of one man:

…in opposition to all that there rang out a fearsome and delightful counter-slogan about the rights of the very few! As a last signpost to a different road, Napoleon appeared, the most singular and late-born man there ever was, and in him the problem of the inherently noble ideal was made flesh—we should consider well what a problem that is: Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman. . . .

Dear lord, sometimes you really can almost physically hear the sound of Nietzsche ejaculating, still reverberating sycophantically down throughout the centuries!

 

17.

Nietzsche finally feigns to suggest that the debate between the two systems of morality is difficult and that readers will not come to a quick conclusion: but he rapidly goes on to admit that he does indeed believe what has been obvious all along, that he prefers the good/bad system and that ‘beyond good and evil’ does not mean ‘beyond good and bad’ (which should make clear the errors of those who take him at his word and see him as a critic of all morality).

 

Note.

Nietzsche recommends the establishment of an essay prize in the history of morality. Interesting idea. He suggests this question:

What suggestions does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?

This isn’t good for Nietzsche, as it’s returning the focus to the very weakest parts of his work. He goes on to call for contributions from physiologists and doctors, believing that the study of morality should begin with physiology before moving on to psychology. This is positive in being a tacit admission that he has jumped the gun himself – presumably he would admit that advances in the sciences might make his arguments obsolete. And indeed, he brings in one of his rare but important references to ‘future philosophers’ here. On the other hand, this Note, which is as it were written in a more plain and intimate way than the hyperbolic body of the text, does all emphasise that Nietzsche is not kidding when he says he’s trying to address morality from a historical point of view. His genealogy is not intended to be metaphorical or ironic, it really is how he sees history.

He ends by stepping back from the position he’s been taking all along, and identifying the underlying debate:

Something, for example, that would have an apparent value with respect to the longest possible capacity for survival of a race (or for an increase in its power to adapt to a certain climate or for the preservation of the greatest number) would have nothing like the same value, if the issue were one of developing a stronger type. The well-being of the majority and the well-being of the fewest are opposing viewpoints for values. We wish to leave it to the naivete of English biologists to take the first as already the one of inherently higher value… the philosopher’s task is to solve the problem of value, that he has to determine the rank order of values.

This is one of the rare times Nietzsche steps out of character and admits that there is a genuine decision to be made here between two conflicting values – most of the time, as seen above, the emphasis is in how wrong (and horrible) the advocates of one set of values are, the choice prejudged in favour of Nietzsche’s own position. But here the choice is put centre-stage. And that word ‘determine’ should be reflected on: the German, bestimmen, has apparently the same ambiguity as the English: so does Nietzsche mean ‘ascertain’, ‘designate’, or ‘fix’? The obvious answer is ‘ascertain’, that’s what philosophers are normally doing when they determine things; my old paperback translation offers me ‘fix’ instead, which seems rather dictatorial (that is, philosophers would be making the values unchanging, and I’m not sure that’s something Nietzsche’s too keen on). Instead, I think ‘designate’ or ‘decide’ would be a closer fit to the meaning. This echoes his comments in Beyond Good and Evil, where he says:

The real philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers; they say: “thus SHALL it be!” They determine first the Whither and Why of mankind… they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is will to power.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too charitable. There’s also evidence from Beyond Good and Evil that ‘fix’ may be the more accurate interpretation, and a reminder that Nietzsche is not talking solely in metaphorical or intellectual terms:

New philosophers… who shall fix the constraints and fasten the knots which will compel the Millenium to take new paths. To teach man the future of humanity as his will… and to make preparation for vast hazardous enterprises… in rearing and educating, in order thereby to put an end to the frightful rule of folly and chance which has hereto gone by the name of “history” – for that purpose a new type of philosopher and commander will sometime or other be needed, at the very idea of which everything that has existed in the way of occult, terrible and benevolent beings might look pale and dwarfed.

Such ‘commanders’, or ‘Leaders’ must be merciless, their conscience should be steeled and… heart transformed into brass’ in order to impose will and order onto history by force, ‘subjugate the past’, and halt the ‘universal degeneracy of mankind’ (as revealed politically throught the plague of democracy and genetically through the intermingling of the Aryan race with lesser peoples, particularly the Jews).

Modern readers of Nietzsche would like very much to cut out the personal side of Nietzsche from the political side – as we have seen how people act when they try to adopt those political views – but in the original these two dimensions are very closely, perhaps inextricably, linked.

Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett

My on-going complete Discworld re-read goes on…

I was really eager to review this one the moment I finished it. Then I didn’t, because of Stuff. Now I have that frustrating feeling I get when I know there’s much more to say than I can actually remember right now…

I suppose we could start by noting that this book moves the ‘City Watch’ sequence firmly into series territory, effectively completing the trilogy begun in Guards! Guards! and continued in Men at Arms. Perhaps it’s worth pointing out here that in the first thirteen books (up to and including Small Gods), you can only really say that six of them continued sequences, and two of those are debateable (Equal Rites was about Esk, not Granny, and neither Lancre nor the other witches appeared, so Wyrd Sisters is only tangentially a follow-up; similarly, Mort was about Mort, with Death only a secondary character, so Reaper Man could be said not to be a follow-up – it’s actually got an almost better claim to be a sequel to Moving Pictures, but the Faculty are only a B-side plot in both of them). Of those 4-6 repeats, 3 of them were Rincewind books, and one wasn’t even intended to be part of the main sequence at the time. None of the books other than The Light Fantastic were outright sequels. In the next 13 books, however, eleven or twelve are follow-ups (you could use the same Mort/Reaper Man argument to say that Soul Music is an original, since both its lead characters are new), and even the one inarguable original (The Truth) began life as a Watch novel, repurposed to a debateable degree of sucess and featuring cameos from the Watch cast.

So we’re comfortably into a stage now where rather than expanding his world Pratchett is settling in. I think I’ve said before that I find this a big problem with later Discworld books… but it’s certainly not an issue here. Maskerade and Feet of Clay continue to deepen and explore their setting, which has not yet become ossified to the point of becoming restrictive and over-familiar. Instead we get the best of both worlds: a setting, and characters who are familiar and yet still have more to show. Both books may lack the sheer genius of Pratchett’s best entries (which in my opinion, so far in the series remain Small Gods and Lords and Ladies), but they have a really impressive solidity to them and a thoroughgoing fineness of quality.

Particularly worthy of mention in Feet of Clay (and again reminiscent of Maskerade) is the sophistication of the plot. The novel has to interweave four different plot threads – if you count major character arcs, it’s at least five and maybe six – all in the space of (in my hardback copy) less than 300 pages. The only thing more amazing than how tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to do this is how much more tightly and proficiently Pratchett is able to appear to do this.

Because one problem with this book is that it doesn’t really work. It’s all set up as an intricate little plot, but really (as often in Pratchett) it’s a bunch of tangentially related stories that don’t, in the end, wrap up anywhere near as tightly as they should. One reason why Pratchett is a brilliant author, however, is that to a large extent he’s able to get away with this by making it seem as though everything fits together perfectly and isn’t entirely reliant on immense coincidences. It’s a sort of narrative legerdemain that almost takes the breath away just by itself. This is all one story… even if, when you try to get down to explaining, logically, how and why everything connects, it all seems a bit tenuous. I remember it as being brilliantly plotted, and once I forget the little details that crop up when you’re actually reading it, I’m going to go back to remembering it that way again in no time at all.

It’s hard to overstate how good a writer Pratchett is at this point. I was immediately struck by his brilliance when I opened the book: this, dear reader, is how you begin a novel. There are five scenes in the first twelve pages. In those five scenes, Pratchett establishes the tone of the book, establishes a complex setting both in general and in some of its parts (although of course the reader would benefit from having read earlier works, Pratchett does make sure to be accessible to first-time or forgetful readers – another reason for his commercial success), sets up what looks like the main plot, sets up two or three subplots while he’s at it, delivers a brilliantly effective character study of a lead character, sketches out efficiently and enjoyably two or three other important characters, gives us some distinctive vignettes of lesser characters, dazzles us with witty turns of phrase, inspires us with intriguing aphorisms… and is funny, too, and yet also menacing and serious.

Pratchett ought to be taught in class as an example of how to write. He may not perhaps be the world’s most literary author, either in his prose style or in his depth and originality of content, but he’s unimpeachably good at the raw business of telling a story well. That’s often overshadowed by how badly some of his stories go off the rails and out of all control… but while his early works seemed naive in their plotting, by this stage in the sequence his failures are all the fault of his own o’erweening ambition. The only thing standing in the way of him writing a brilliantly crafted story is his own need to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a book of this length and style. As a result, we get books (and this is by no means the worst of them, not in the slightest) that perch on the edge of working and rely to varying degrees on the goodwill of the reader not to quibble with them too much. Fortunately, Pratchett is extremely good at generating goodwill… (which is why I really like Reaper Man. Logically speaking, it’s an utter mess of a novel, a novel that could be taught in class as a demonstration of how not to tell a coherent story, and yet for me it works… in part, I have to recognise, just because I really want it to).

Like, for instance, those first five scenes. What I didn’t notice at the time is… they’ve got nothing to do with one another. There’s a seemingly random exchange between two people, which is intriguing but tells us nothing. There’s a little bit about nothing at all to do with anything, just a descriptive passage about the nature of the world – light-hearted but interesting. There’s a brief passage about a different person dying, which is obviously a Bad Thing, and played very earnestly (but strangely). There’s a whole run of pages about another man having his morning shave and reflecting on newfound matrimony – psychological and sombre, but ending with some menacing levity. There’s a nice man writing a letter to his mother while feeding his dog some sausages in a café – gentle mood, overtones of irony. After that it’s off for a dialogue between a murder victim and Death, which is mostly played for laughs but is obviously quite serious in content – and could be tied back to the earlier death scene, except that the tone is entirely different – and then some jokey scenes about job interviews and police work and so forth. This is a mess! This shouldn’t work!

At yet it does. If you’re not concentrating, you don’t notice that these scenes have nothing to do with one another in content or in style. Quite the contrary – it all feels as though it makes sense, like a grandmaster carefully setting out the pieces one by one.

In the end, I think he’s bluffing (if you’ll forgive my mixing my sporting metaphors). Pratchett does enough to sketch out his plot in its essentials, and he makes it all feels as though it makes sense, but… well, if any other author tried to present that as the solution to a police procedural, the reader would not be buying. But fortunately, trying to be critical of Pratchett novels is like trying not to buy one of Mr Dibbler’s famous meat pies. No matter how much your mind tries to tell you that there’s only one rational response to this, your body ends up eating a sausage-inna-bun and wearing a pink sombrero…

Another thing that struck me while reading this novel was the political ambiguity Pratchett indulges in. Now, Pratchett may be the world’s best example of an author with mass, cross-demographic appeal. He’s read by children; he’s read by academics. He’s read for a quick laugh and for a moving experience. He’s read by women and by men. He’s read, above all, by a really vast number of people. And this should immediately make people pay attention and ask what it is exactly about Pratchett that makes his appeal so broad. And there are a lot of parts to that answer, and some of them I don’t know; but here’s one that came to me when reading this book:

Politics need not be a problem for his readers. More than that, politics can be an asset for him in selling his books. Which politics? Any politics!

If, like me, you’re a liberal, you probably see Pratchett as a liberal. I mean, just look at him from a feminist point of view, for a start: he hasn’t just created some of the best female characters in fantasy, he’s written entire books with almost entirely female casts and nobody has even noticed because it feels so natural when he does it. His books are constantly embracing ethnic diversity, both in their casts and explicitly in their pages – Feet of Clay more so than most, with Vimes even delivering a scathing attack on the Sherlock Holmes school of deduction on grounds of bigotry, pointing out that any attempt to draw such rapid deductions about people from little evidence relies on a bigoted and close-minded assumption about the uniformity of life (in fact he calls the Holmes idea “an insult to the glorious variety of human life”, which is about as strong and direct as Pratchett’s writing gets). People are far too wonderfully varied to calculate.

And yet I wonder whether, if I were a conservative, I wouldn’t see Pratchett as a fellow traveller too. Take the occasional race-based humour, for instance: I find this a little awkward, particularly when it’s clearly based on real-world racial stereotypes, but I’m quick to defend him, as everybody is. That’s just a silly little throwaway joke – more a pastiche of racist humour than an actual jibe! That’s not a joke at all, it’s a parallel and a commentary on the history of race-relations that uses real-world stereotypes to set up an assumption that he can then challenge… That’s just a joke about some liberals taking themselves too seriously. I mean, clearly he’s one of us, look at all the good stuff he says!

But I do wonder how many Daily Mail readers might, for instance, read Pratchett’s skewering of anti-discrimination pressure groups (the Campaign for Equal Heights makes ridiculous claims of discrimination, but it’s OK since it’s made up entirely of local humans, with actual dwarfs largely ignoring it) as, well, a normal right-wing attack on Political Correctness Gone Mad, rather than, say, a passing swipe at the zealotry of a minority of liberal individuals who, as it were, believe more in the church of liberalism than in its faith. Do those readers view Vimes – who is, frankly, underlyingly a bigot, but who supports liberalism to some degree thanks to a combination of pragmatism, general empathy, and a bloody-minded desire to spite the rich and powerful that leads him to favour underdogs even if they are from some disliked minority – as an unproblematic hero, rather than the good but compromised, complicated hero of an out-of-date generation? Do they view Carrot, then, as a pleasant but naïve idealist? Do they take the way that Pratchett’s minorities, despite facing persecution and sometimes violence, almost always prefer to just grumble through by themselves without outside assistance, as a model for how real minorities ought to behave?

It’s one thing to engage in dog-whistle politics. Pratchett sometimes seems to be blowing dog whistles for both the right and the left… and I say that not so much to criticise him (although I did feel that the Jewishness of the golems was played up a little bit too much, given the importance of the only-care-about-money-and-contracts aspect of golemness to the plot), but rather to admire his dexterity. I don’t know if he does it intentionally or if he’s just that conflicted/complicated, but Pratchett manages effortless, almost unnoticeably, a display of saying-what-they-want-to-both-sides that most professional politicians couldn’t dream of emulating! He’s the Bill Clinton of fantasy authors… (err… talking there about Clinton’s broad appeal, ambiguity, and incredible charisma, rather than, you know, the other… stuff).

So anyway. Where does that all leave us with Feet of Clay?

In the heat of the moment, a little bit frustrated. It was so close to being genius, but very slightly wasn’t.

On the other hand: it’s so close to being genius. You get a mystery (several mysteries in one, I guess) that isn’t top-drawer but that is intriguing and generally satisfying (and I have to say, I was very impressed with Pratchett that I didn’t realise the solution to the poisining mystery until it was revealed, despite it being, in hindsight, really obvious). You get plenty of comedy. You get political and social issues (and despite what I’ve said above, this is perhaps the most overtly liberal of the Discworld novels). And you get a whole heap of character development stuff. There’s even good material for Sergeant Colon!

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not quite as explosive as some entries, but effectively tense throughout.

Emotion: 3/5. Not as high-stakes emotion-wise for the characters… but the characters are so strong, and so empathic, that you can’t but invest in their progress.

Thought: 4/5. Clever plotting, plus Issues. Not exactly ground-breaking, but a good thoughtful book.

Beauty: 4/5. Pratchett’s writing is a delight, and there are also some really striking scenes here.

Craft: 5/5. Seems strange giving top marks given that I think the plot is deeply flawed – but the details of the plotting, the prose, the composition, the direction of the attention, the humour, the character work, the descriptive vividity, the multilingual puns (Pratchett can drop jokes for the lowest common denominator and for those fluent in Latin with equal ease – or, in the case of Vetinari’s family motto, for those fluent in Latin and also familiar with mid-20th century American politics*). (Dear lord, how many people on earth are erudite enough to make that ‘Rats chamber’ joke?). Everything is just of such a high quality I can’t but give it full marks.

Endearingness: 5/5. Funny, likeable, fun, impressive. And plenty of time with really likeable character.

Originality: 4/5. The parts are, of course, taken from elsewhere, but it’s all put together in a really interesting and unique way.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Could almost have been brilliant, but I didn’t feel it was quite there. Nonetheless, it’s a seriously good book! Comparing this one with Maskerade, the two are very close in quality, imo – I think the difference comes down to whether you prefer a little more outright comedy, as in Maskerade, vs a little more complexity and character work in Feet of Clay. Personally I’m going for Feet of Clay, but I think it’s a toss-up. They’re both a small step behind Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but it is only a small step.

*Rudolph Potts, baker: quod subigo farinam. That one still sets me giggling!

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

If anyone wants to know my thoughts on Hobb’s earlier novels, look over here.

Some people will read Fool’s Assassin and say: but there was no plot! 4/5ths of the book was pointless filler! We didn’t get to the real story until the end!

That makes sense, although I’m not sure how those readers made it through all the previous installments of Robin Hobb’s cycle, since she’s never exactly been known for all-out high-octane action novels.

But my reaction was in any case exactly the opposite: 4/5ths of the book was maybe my favourite book of all time, and then it all got shunted aside because the author or her publishers thought this new trilogy needed to prove it was still epic fantasy.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot. My principle is not only to try not to spoil the books I review, but also not to spoil previous installments in the series more than necessary. Since this is now Book 14 in the cycle construed broadly, and Book 7 in terms purely of the history of FitzChivalry Farseer, that’s a lot of plot to avoid mentioning! But I think it’s safe to say that the beginning of this trilogy – like the beginning of Tawny Man – finds our favourite assassin a little out of the loop, more concerned with domestic issues surrounding his country home than with grand affairs of court or with the fate of the world.

And I’m OK with that. Gosh darnit, I’ve read through six hefty tomes of Fitz constantly being distracted from the demands of his private life by the exigencies of world-saving, and now to be honest I’d be quite happy just reading three books of the man sitting around, hanging out, having tea with people, deciding which clothes to buy, whatever.

Of course, Robinh Hobb is not a bad plotter. She’s at worst an OK plotter, and at times an excellent one (much of The Liveship Traders, for instance, felt meticulously devised). But in all her work, it’s the characters who have interested me – the personal drama, and above all the relationship drama. The plot has been there to force the characters into action, to create that drama. But now, to be honest, I rather felt as though this time the plot was getting in the way of the drama: there’s more than enough real excitement in Fitz’s life now to do without the big picture for a bit. I’m not normally somebody who likes soap operas, but after six volumes, I think we all deserve a little bit of guilty pleasure. I know that Fitz sure as hell does…

But let’s not get too caught up with that. This is only the first book of the trilogy, assuming Hobb can keep it to a trilogy this time (the two volumes of The Rain Wild Chronicles each had to be split in two, and the final volume of Tawny Man before that was truly gargantuan, right up there at Jordan/Martin length; no disrespect to Hobb, who does a lot better at this than many other fantasy writers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this somehow bulged out to four books rather than three). Two books from now perhaps I’ll be wowed by this new plot, and look back at the calm times of Fool’s Assassin as more than sufficient wallowing-in-life for one trilogy. But being torn away from that… right now, that hurts a little.

And it’s not just my taste in tone at issue here. I also think there are elements of the Big Picture that don’t so far look like they work that well. Most importantly, this new series seems to be challenging the whole mythology of the cycle to this point. Don’t get me wrong: I loved how Tawny Man challenged The Farseer Trilogy thematically. I was excited by how The Liveship Traders challenged Farseer mythologically, and… well, contented enough more or less with the mythological additions in Tawny Man. But I worried that The Rain Wild Chronicles was making Fitz’s story and its mythology obsolete, and now again everything changes in this new trilogy, it would appear. Change is good, of course, but we also need stability in order for things to matter to us: turn things on their head too many times and we lose our sense of which way is up and which is down and start to just get seasick. It also wearies the mind and diverts the attention to the mechanisms behind the machine: plot twists, when too frequent, start to seem exploitative, manipulative. The thrill of revolution yields to the monotony of mere rotation.

The other big problem with the book – and in places connected to my issues with the Big Plot – is that several characters, particularly Fitz, are required to be utter idiots.

Now, Fitz has never been the sharpest man around. Part of the charm of his story has always been that between common sense, good luck, good friends and hard work, he’s managed to win out despite not being some perfect hero, and that includes not always being the smartest guy around. Hobb usually does very well at depicting this – it can be hard to write a character who’s less intelligent than much of the audience without making him look like a buffoon. And I should be clear that for the most part she still succeeds at that here. Indeed, age has made Fitz wiser, and experience has honed his thought and observation. He’s actually capable of some pretty keen deductions. In fact, in this book he’s quite smart.

Which makes it even more clunking when there are four or five things that Fitz must be able to realise, or at least consider the possibility of, yet remains clueless of for plot reasons. Sure, you could argue that in some of these cases he’s not so much stupid as willfully ignorant, refusing to consider certain things – but I don’t think Hobb does a great job of showing him refusing to consider them, making it instead look as though he just never for a moment imagines them. It’s not the sort of boneheaded stupidity that ruins the plot – which would progress in a very similar way even if he were a bit smarter – and it is just about conceivably within the limits of Fitz’s demonstrated ability to overlook things. But it does feel like something of a blemish.

But let’s not get too carried away. Much of the rest was sheer brilliance. The early parts of the book convey a clear sense of how Fitz has grown up as a result of his prior experience – a maturity that will no doubt frustrate many readers who long for the younger, more impulsive version – and deliver a pay-off that justifies, in my mind, the controversial ending to the prior trilogy. Seeing Fitz in a calmer, more domestic setting rounds out his character in a new and satisfying way. And yet the book is far from uneventful or serene. Quite the contrary. Although there is little formal plot for the majority of the book, a great deal of incident occurs, displaying how Fitz has changed, the nature of his relationships, and perhaps most impressively the changing world around him. The Six Duchies are no longer the place where Fitz grew up – Hobb skillfully conveys the extent of the social changes in the wider world in a subtle way, without blinding us with improbably rapid and attention-grabbing shifts.

And then there’s the emotion. For one thing, there are elements of happiness here, perhaps even contentment, that are moving in their own right and that magnify the impact of the things that go wrong (oh, things go wrong – this is a Fitz novel, remember?). Underneath the happiness, however, Fitz remains deeply scarred by his past experiences, and particularly by two big changes that occured in the last trilogy (it’s particularly effective how those scars have changed his opinions on one topic, without him even noticing, in a way that would have been anathema to the younger Fitz); later wounds re-open those old injuries and push him to the very brink. Fool’s Assassin is a powerful depiction of a man attempting to hold himself together, to not let the poison within him damage the good things that he has – and like all internal battles there is a certain narcissism to this, a naïve assumption that the world will wait passively for him to deal with his own issues – if, indeed, he accepts that those issues even need to be dealt with at all. Even when everything is going well, Fitz is a man predisposed to melancholy, and in this book the series finally begins to consider that Fitz may not not just be a battered unfortunate tossed around by fate, but may also (in part as a response, in part perhaps by nature) have serious issues with depression. There is a strong feeling that even when Fitz is calm and happy, he is having to work hard at being calm and happy. He continues to be prone to melancholy reflection, he continues to have a strong vein of (often justified) paranoia – a paranoia that he has to work against so hard that he at times becomes wilfully naïve – and above all he continues to have serious issues with trust and intimacy. The happy place in which he begins the book is not the secure happiness of a man floating in calm water, but the desparate happiness of a man holding with all his strength onto a lifeboat. Fitz has not so much dealt with his demons as assembled an array of shields and flotation devices around him. Inevitably, some elements of that defence are going to be threatened by the end of the book, and he is not going to respond well to this. The problem is, how can a half-drowning man react to the loss of part of what supports him without dragging the rest of his support down into the water with him?

It’s nuanced, brave, and powerful writing. There were multiple occasions when my eyes misted up, and at least one when I cried – but the emotion is not all negative, either. There’s both darkness and light in this book, tragedy and triumph. By the end, Fitz has been put into a very interesting – and very dangerous – place, and I think that he’s probably more unpredictable going into the next two books than he’s been at any time in the sequence (except possibly at the end of Royal Assassin). This could all end well; this could all end very badly.

Unfortunately, while I understand what Hobb was trying to do, the point where Fitz’s personal plot intersects the big-P Plot at the end of the book just didn’t seem believable to me. I don’t know why, exactly, but it didn’t. Suffice to say that Fitz acts impulsively (shock spoiler!) in a way that intellectually makes sense in hindsight, given his trajectory over the book, but that did not quite ring true to me in the moment.

One final problem with the book – a problem that may disappear retrospectively, depending on what happens next – is that many of the characters built up around Fitz in the Tawny Man books are absent here, or at least so invisible as to be virtually absent. I don’t mind this conceptually – after all, the whole point of Hobb’s cycle is perhaps the inevitability of change – but it did feel like a wasted opportunity at times. Hopefully, however, Fitz’s being thrust back into the world of Big Plots by the end of the novel will let us see some more of those characters, and how they too have changed over time.

In their place, however, we have other relationships for Fitz, both positive and negative. I think it’s a fair trade, as in many ways these are more important and more interesting relationships. One, in particular, is in my opinion the most important and interesting of all Fitz’s connections, particularly in the later parts of the book; meanwhile, new characters are introduced and set up what could potentially be very intriguing relationships in the following volumes.

A big part of what makes this book so good, though, is that I really don’t know what’s coming next (it seems strange to me to even imagine that this story is going to take only two more books! We’re still the equivalent of about 300 pages into Fool’s Errand, and the plot ahead of us looks much, much larger). Hobb here, particularly before the Big Plot arrives, has reached a point of utter disregard for the clichés of the genre, and thus it is impossible to predict what happens. There are so many red herrings here – or perhaps there are none, and everything will matter in the end. The point is, I still can’t tell. It’s impressively true to life: we don’t always know “this is a person who will be important”, “that backstory will be relevant”, “I should make note of this for later!” and so on. So Hobb gives us a forest of potential plot threads, some of which will doubtlessly go nowhere. But because the narrative focus is so tightly focussed on Fitz as a character, this is not frustrating: it’s not a waste of time, because we get to spend time with Fitz. How Fitz reacts to things is the story, is the point of the things that go on around him – at least, that’s the point right now.

Hobb has always been a character-focused, and in particular a relationship-focused writer; Fool’s Assassin, for the first four-fifths of it at least, is the most Hobbish book yet in that regard. It’s her most literary book. And I think that’s why I got frustrated when some slightly-silly-sounding epic fantasy business burst in toward the end. Can’t we just get all this over with quickly and go back to what matters?

That, I suppose, is her point. I want to get back to what matters – but the plot is going to change everything. And that hurts, because every change is a loss. But then if there hadn’t been this sort of change before, we’d never have gotten the status quo that I want to investigate more fully… it’s been an increasing theme of Hobb in recent books that we never get the change to stop the ride, and to some extent it feels like this whole book is a demonstration of that. Most obviously, the book itself does not stop in one place for long: this single book probably lasts longer, in internal chronology, than either of the two preceding trilogies (if you exclude the very early childhood chapters of Assassin’s Apprentice). We keep waiting for it to settle on the one time-period that ‘counts’, that ‘matters’ – but they all do!

The greatest triumph of the book, however, may be the most shocking – so shocking I have some reservations about mentioning at all, even though it’s not a spoiler in the traditional sense. And that is: it’s not all about Fitz. More, it’s not all by Fitz. Fitz remains the primary POV character, but we also, particularly later in the book, begin to get chapters from a second POV. This will no doubt enrage some Fitz fans, but I felt it worked exceptionally well. Indeed, I think perhaps it worked too well – by the end, I was actually getting a little frustrated with having to go back to Fitz chapters… I can only hope we see a lot more of this character’s POV in the next two books. The introduction of this POV also makes me wonder what Hobb’s long-term plans are: is she signalling that stories can continue in Fitz’s part of the world even without Fitz in them, perhaps beyond the point where Fitz is forced to retire? More worryingly, we must surely consider the possibility that this new POV will allow Fitz to be killed off at the end of the trilogy… or even partway through it. Given how powerfully moved I’ve been by other losses throughout these books, I’m really not sure how well I could cope with that.

So, I guess I’ve run out of things to say. The bulk of this book is probably my favourite and almost certainly the best of Hobb’s novels (though it would feel staggeringly pointless to a new reader – it makes Tawny Man seem standalone by comparison), thanks to its generous pace, fine prose, psychological complexity and power, and unpredictability. Then some stuff happens. I’m almost entirely convinced that that stuff happening makes this a worse book than it would otherwise be; on the other hand, Fool’s Assassin is not a standalone psychological novel, it’s the first volume of an epic fantasy trilogy, and what happens nearer the end is essential to setting up the plot of the remaining two books. It’s just a shame that, in the moment, it feels so incongruous. I hope, however, that in hindsight it all make sense.

That’s the hope that everyone will have to have, I think. Hobb said before this book came out that she was writing the story she felt needed to be told, not the story that her fans necessarily wanted – and boy does it look like that might end up being true. Of all the modern authors I can think of, Hobb perhaps comes closest to that ideal of writing without pandering to her fans, and to a large extent she’s been rewarded for that courage with the loyalty of those very fans, who have accepted and admired her independence. I suspect that this new trilogy will be challenging to many, however. I can only hope that fans – myself included – continue to give her the benefit of the doubt that she has so richly earned. Either way, despite the gentle pacing of this first installment, it’s very clear by the end of this book that, whatever exactly is coming next, we all need to hold on to our hats.

 

 

 

Adrenaline: 4/5. Gripping. Docked a point for its length and slow pace: I loved it, but I know that many more impatient readers will find it too much of a challenge in this regard. You really need to get into the right mindset for one of these later Hobb novels.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. Incredibly powerful, at least after you’ve spent 15 years with this character. For context, this is only the second book I’ve given a top mark to in this category (after The God of Small Things).

Thought: 4/5. Not that much abstract rumination, but a tricksy plot and some important themes mean you’ll need to engage your brain fully.

Beauty: 5/5. Career-high prose supports a beautiful depiction of the good and the bad in life, with many exquisite moments along the way.

Craft: 4/5. As suggested above, there are a few minor clunky issues around the edges. But overall it’s wonderfully skilfull in plot, in prose, in character, in scene composition, in everything.

Endearingness: 5/5. Yes, I ended a bit frustrated. But to be fair, that’s because the frustrating bits were at the end. Now that the memory of that frustration has faded just a little, what I loved about the book has risen back to the top of my memory, and my word there was so much that I loved. Does this topple Golden Fool as probably my most-loved book? Not for now – but maybe only because I need to wait a while and read again before I feel comfortable saying that.

Originality: 5/5. At the end, we get some suggestions of a more traditional epic plot, and I worry that this may end up feeling too much like a re-run of past books – but for now that’s a worry for the future. As it is, there’s no way you could ever confuse this book with any other – it’s even distinctive among Hobb’s Fitz novels.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. OK, yes, despite my reservations around the ending, I still can’t avoid saying that this is Hobb’s best book yet. It’s a true masterpiece, and its flaws are only visible to me because the rest of it is so superb. There’s a quote on the front cover (and incidentally, what a beautiful front cover it is! The gloriously shiny UK cover that is, not the US one with the Fantasy Guy In Cape on it) by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame: “Fantasy as it ought to be written”. I honestly can’t disagree. If more fantasy was written like this, the genre would not be so deprecated by those outside it; I’m encouraged to see this recognised by reviewers – the Telegraph, for instance, calls it ‘high art’ that ‘transcends the fantasy genre’. Again, no disagreement here.