Political Turnover Rate in the US

Sorry, I’ve not been putting much on my blog recently. You know how it is… stuff. Plus, for a while now I’ve had a weird urge to re-read a particular book, and I simply cannot find the damn thing anywhere, so as a result I’ve not been reading much…. [plus, it’s TV season]

But I’m here now! With…. a post of probably no interest to anybody, but never mind.  It’s just something that intrigued me, and yes, this is the sort of thing I do to entertain myself…


America is, like a lot of democracies, a two-party country, more or less. There’s one party, and then there’s the other party, and people tend to consistently vote for one or for the other and that’s just how it is and always has been. Nothing special there. As I say, it’s common. It reflects in part the simple plurality (or ‘first past the post’) electoral system, which privileges the two largest parties, but also to a large extent the social cleavages within the nation. That’s why most countries (not all, but most) with multi-party systems in practice tend most of the time have those parties line up in two blocs – one of the left, and one of the right, although in individual countries local issues may also play a role in defining how the blocs see themselves, and how they compete. [Long-term additional parties or blocs likewise tend to reflect additional cleavages – regional parties that reflect differences in national or ethnic identity, for example]

As a result of parties being based on underlying cleavages, parties tend to be static: the same people, and the same places, keep on voting for the same parties, or their successor parties. There are parts of the UK that have voted Conservative (or, before that, Tory) every election since the 1830s.

But parties aren’t fixed in stone, and the biggest example of that is the US (perhaps in part because historically both major parties were broadly ‘liberal’ middle-class parties, more flexible than the labour parties, agrarian parties or religious parties, or even conservative parties, found in most other democracies). It’s well known that the US has gone through several different ‘party systems’, in which its parties had different names, or drew from different bases of support, or competed on very different issues. What that means on the ground is that areas have gone from supporting one party to supporting another.

And that, excuse the longwindedness, is what I’ve just been intrigued by. How far do you have to go back before all the states in the US voted differently from how they do now? How often has such a complete turnover occurred? How quickly does it occur?

This isn’t an academic study, it’s just me looking at some historical election results. There are ambiguities around the edges, mostly around how you define which parties are the successors to which earlier parties – I’ve taken an inclusive, common sense line on succession, because I’m interested in real changes in voting, not just party rebrandings. And for my purposes here, I’m defining a “turnover” or “transition” as a period of time from Year X to Year Y, inclusive, when every state had been admitted to the union by Year X had voted for two different parties by Year Y – which means that during that time, no states (other than those that entered the union during that period) remained loyal to a single party. And the turnovers that have occurred are:


1: 1789 – 1820: the Connecticut / Delaware Transition

This one is nice and clear cut: in 1789, every single state voted for Washington’s Federalists; in 1820, every single state voted for Monroe’s Democratic-Republicans. I’ve called this the Connecticut/Delaware Transition, because those are the only two states that didn’t vote D-R in 1804 – the country was, as it were, kept waiting for those two states to switch allegiance. Because these transition periods are about both change and continuity: change in that across the period all states changed their votes, but continuity because they are defined by the end of a state’s loyalty – in this case, Connecticut and Delaware voted Federalist every election up to, but not including, 1820. This example turns out to be commonplace: often transitions revolve around a big wave election like 1804, with just a few loyal states that are then picked off more slowly later on.


2: 1796 – 1860: the Virginia Transition

The one-party state established during the C/D Transition eventually broke down. And by ‘eventually’, I mean the very next election, in 1824, when four different candidates ran, all nominally as Democratic-Republicans – the two new parties, the Democrats and the National Republicans, were only formalised for the 1828 cycle. I’ve chosen to consider the Democrats as the successor party to the D-Rs – the Democrat Jackson was the candidate with the most votes in 1828 (though he lost the election when the House settled on his rival, John Quincy Adams, instead), and the self-declared ‘Old Republicans’, who wanted to restore the perceived traditional values of the party, eventually sided with the Democrats, rather than with the National Republicans. This transition therefore represents the loss of dominance by the D-R/Democratic Party and the rise of a sequence of new parties – National Republicans, Whigs, and finally Republicans. Virginia was the final hold-out, voting the same way for 64 years, before finally voting for the Constitutional Union Party on the eve of the civil war – it would take until 1872 before they finally went the whole way and voted Republican.


3: 1820-1868: the Alabama Transition

This transition can be seen as an extension of the second: it exists because several states entered the union after 1796, including a couple that would prove faithfully Democratic for decades: Missouri and Alabama. Missouri finally voted Republican in 1864, when Alabama was in secession; Alabama joined it the next cycle. The period represents the transition to a Republican-dominant system after the civil war.


4: 1828 – 1912: the Massachusetts Transition

The third transition may have left the Republicans dominant, but the Democrats were able to recover, and even to pick off traditionally Republican states. The transition ended with the unusual election of 1912: with the Republicans split into two parties, the Democrats under Wilson were able to make sweeping gains, including finally grabbing the Republican stronghold of Massachusetts, which had voted Republican (and before that Whig, and before that National Republican, and before that for the Adams faction) since 1828.


5: 1836 – 1964: the Vermont Transition

In the middle of the 20th century, power swung dramatically backward and forward, with the Democrats scoring crushing victories in 1932 and 1936, and Republicans doing likewise in 1928, 1952, and 1956. But each wave broke against the shores of the same enemy strongholds: the Democrat south and the Republican northeast. The final breakthrough didn’t come until LBJ’s sweeping victory in 1964, which finally knocked out the Republicans everywhere except, ironically, the south, and Arizona. In the short term, the shift of the southern states to the Republicans looked more striking – but the southern states had already all voted Republican before, mostly in the aftermath of the civil war. The real hold-out was Vermont, which had been loyal to the Republicans (etc) since 1836. Remarkably, the only reason which this transition was so ‘short’ was that Vermont in 1832 had voted for the Anti-Masonic Party – the state had never actually voted Democrat before.


6: 1876 – 1968: the Arkansas Transition

Here’s the one that symbolises the loss of the Democrat south. After the initial post-civil-war confusion, the south went back to being soundly Democrat until the time of LBJ. Many southern states flipped in 1964, but Arkansas lasted until 1968, when it voted for Wallace’s American Independents. It went the whole way and voted Republican in 1972, not quite making it to the century mark…


7: 1952 – 1996: the Arizona Transition

While all that business with the south and the northeast was going on, something else had changed: Arizona, which had swung to the Democrats with FDR, swung back in the high-water Republican election of 1952. It wasn’t pried out of their hands again until Clinton’s re-election in 1996 (and that was a one-off). It’s actually a slightly bigger deal than it might seem: the most loyal of Eisenhower’s states in the far west (that is, the only one not to vote for Johnson in ’64), even its temporary loss is emblematic of the gradual transition of those Eisenhower states from Republican to Democrat: Washington and Oregon switched in ’88, California in ’92, and Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico have all become active states again. Montana and Arizona have both toyed with the Democrats, leaving only Utah and Idaho as loyal Eisenhower states (since ’64). And I guess Wyoming.


8: 1968 – ? : the Western Transition

We don’t know how long this transition will last, but I’m guessing it may take a while. The interesting thing is that the Republican stronghold this time (and this transition will be a matter of eroding Republican support – the current Democratic strongholds weren’t established until later) isn’t, in historical terms at least, the South at all, despite popular perception. The Southern states have already betrayed the Republicans: en masse to vote for Carter, and then piecemeal to vote for Clinton. Instead, the historical core of Republican support in this transition has been in the west: the Wilkie states (that emerged as a bloc voting for Wilkie and then Dewey against Roosevelt and Truman) of Kansas, Nebraska, and North and South Dakota, plus the remaining Eisenhower states of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Plus Oklahoma, which also swung with Eisenhower but doesn’t really fit. Plus Alaska, which didn’t vote until 1960, but can probably be considered an Eisenhower state. All nine states went Democrat for Johnson in ’64, but switched back in ’68 and have never looked back. Not until all nine have voted Democrat at least once will the current transition be complete.


Note: due to the way these transitions are calculated, for each starting year after one of the years listed above, there is a complete turnover by the end-point of the last-listed transition. Put plainly: the 1789 and 1792 situations were both completely turned over by 1820; the 1796, 1800, 1804, 1808, 1812 and 1816 situations were all turned over by 1860; 1820 and 1824 were both turned over by 1868; the elections from 1828 to 1836 were all turned over by 1912, and so on. And conversely, because the current unfinished cycle began in 1968, that means that 1964 is the most recent election outside this cycle – that is, since 1964 every state has voted both ways, but that is not the case since 1968.

From this we can calculate the slowest and quickest turnovers. The electoral map in 1836 was not completely overturned until 1964, a record 128 years of relative stability [other strongholds during this time included Alabama and Mississippi (minus some Reconstruction-era elections) and Georgia (minus a flirtation with the Whigs in the 1840s) for the Democrats, and Maine (again, minus some confusion in the 1840s) for the Whigs/Republicans]. At the other end of the spectrum, the quickest total turnover was between 1948 and 1968 – specifically, only 5 states didn’t vote the opposite way in 1956 and 1964, and two of those (West Virginia and Kentucky) flipped twice those eight years (the only three that stayed loyal through that crisis were North Carolina and Arkansas for the Democrats and Arizona for the Republicans). Three turnovers of less than 20 years were only narrowly avoided: only one state (Arizona) voted the same way for every election from 1956 to 1968, and only two states (Arizona and Massachusetts) voted the same way in 1964-1972.


Anyway, cut out some smaller overlapping transitions and this method gives you three grand cycles: 1789-1820; 1824-1872; 1872-1964; 1968-now. This takes us back to the beginning of this post, because those line up fairly decently with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd/4th/5th and 6th party systems (though this model has the 3rd starting a little later, once the system really gets fixed in place, rather than when the Republican Party is officially founded). Interestingly, the normal debate is about whether the 5th and 6th are really separate (and if so when the break occurred), whereas under these definitions that distinction is unavoidable, and the questions are really about the 3rd, 4th and 5th systems…


….well then, that’s it really. Not sure what anyone’s going to get out of this, but the question interested me. So there you go.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

The Phantom Tollbooth is a 1961 novel presumably intended for children. It appears to be a bigger thing in the US than here.

I read this once, as a child; but I didn’t really remember it. I must have read it in the school library or thing, as I didn’t have a copy, and I think I only read it once. That’s why, when recently I heard the book described, I was gripped by the urge to buy it and read it, because hearing about it was like hearing about a dream – little elements that I thought I had forgotten, drawn from a book the name of which I no longer knew. Continue reading

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

“I wish I could have written Babbitt” – H.G. Wells

Babbitt is an oddity for me: not only because it’s literary fiction, and social realism at that, but also because it doesn’t really need a review. It’s one of the iconic works of the 20th century. Its title became a common noun – you can still find it in dictionaries – and a word that symbolised one of the great social divides of the 1920s and 1930s. Babbitt was a bestseller: the tenth-best-selling book of 1922, and the fourth-best-selling book of 1923. It was one of five top-ten bestsellers by Lewis that decade, the most by any author of that era (tied with Zane Grey). Two of those novels hit number one, and another hit number two. Meanwhile, in 1930, Lewis became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; Babbitt was widely considered to be the book that won it for him.

To summarise what Lewis meant in the 1920s, perhaps imagine that Tom Clancy (who, like Lewis, had two number-one bestsellers) and Gabriel García Márquez (who, like Lewis, was a Nobel laureate) were the same person. Or perhaps, given the political nature of Lewis’ writing, a better combination would be Dan Brown (two bestsellers) and Harold Pinter (Nobel laureate).

In other words, you don’t need my review on this one. If you have any interest in literature, whether for historical or for artistic purposes, Babbitt should already be on your to-read list.

But since I’ve read it, I may as well say a few words for those who haven’t read it yet… Continue reading

Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett

An army on campaign is a sort of large, portable city. It has only one employer, and it manufactures dead people…

Monstrous Regiment is a novel about a young girl, Polly, who runs away to join the army, in order to find her brother. To do so, she has to pretend to be a man. No spoilers there, that’s all dealt with with admirable succinctness on the first page. She meets up with fellow recruits, a jolly old recruiting sergeant and his nasty little corporal, and heads toward the front, as they gradually realise that their nation – beloved Borogravia, in yet another war with the dastardly swede-eating Zlobenians – is losing very badly. In some respects it is an ambitious book: as well as taking on war and nationalism again, it’s yet another assault on organised religion (a return for the ghastly deity Nuggan, last seen in The Last Hero), as well as an extended exploration of broad themes of feminism as well as narrow themes of gender roles, transgenderism/transvestitism and so forth; and for good measure it’s also a chance for Pratchett to show off his beloved Vimes yet again. Continue reading

Lady into Fox, by David Garnett

It’s hard to say too much about Lady into Fox – it’s a short novella, and very simple. Indeed, I didn’t really feel that I was reading the work of an author – more just hearing an articulate, literate man tell me a story. The prose isn’t always polished – and is speckled with little oddities from the common speech of the era – and the story is straightforward and unadorned. Put bluntly, it’s about an English gentleman whose wife one day turns into a fox, and the difficulties that are posed by this unexpected turn of events. Continue reading

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice; by James Branch Cabell

It is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt [the literary permanence of James Branch Cabell, as surely exceeding that of all writers in England save arguably Hardy and Conrad]. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty, as Jurgen.
– Burton Rascoe, Literary Editor at the New York Herald Tribune, 1921


Well, I’ve run into a bit of a problem with this review. The thing is… it’s a bit too long.

So I’m going start out instead with a short flow-chart summary, which may save you from having to wade through the full review.

  • Are you interested in the history of the SF&F genre? If so, you should read this book. Cabell may be forgotten today, but he’s one of the truly seminal figures in the genre and this is his most famous novel. Neil Gaiman has called Cabell his favourite author; Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance began their careers by unabashedly trying to emulate him; James Blish, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson contributed articles to a journal devoted to studying him (Roger Zelazny sent in letters). Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin agree, for once, in praising him. Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner and Terry Pratchett are just a few other writers believed to have been influenced by him.


  • Are you interested in the history of American literature, or the history of 20th century literature? If so, you should read this book. Cabell was routinely considered one of the half dozen or so titans of American literature throughout the 1920s and 1930s (having been a highly acclaimed writer’s writer before that). H.L Mencken called him the greatest living American writer; F. Scott Fitzgerald put him third in his personal canon after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France; his wife Zelda called him her favourite author of all, and one of only two writers (along with Edith Wharton) who had ever made her cry. [Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman all agreeing on their favourite author: how can you not want to read him?] Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis are just two examples of writers who boasted of Cabellian influences, and when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and mentioned, in his speech, the other American writers of his era who might have been equally deserving, Cabell was the third name to come to his mind. And quality aside, the court case surrounding Jurgen was the literary cause célèbre of its day, making it, and Cabell, icons for a generation. Oh, and Mark Twain said that Cabell was the author he most enjoyed reading.


  • Are you looking for a hilarious light read? If so, do you find writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett funny? If so, read this book.


  • Are you looking for an insightful study of the nature of human existence, or at least human existence as it might appear from a very particular personal perspective? If so, read this book. It wasn’t the icon of a generation for nothing.


  • Are you interested in the Mediaeval Romance, or in Victorian Revivalism? In Malory, and Rabelais, and Bunyan, and Scott, and Tennyson, and William Morris, and T.H. White? But you don’t mind them being made fun of a little? If so, read this book.


  • Are you interested in cultural and sociological modern history, and would appreciate satire directed at early-20th century American society? If so, read this book.


  • Do you like beautiful prose? And do you like the prose of Wilde, and Chesterton? If so… well, it’s not a must-read, but if you have the time I’d certainly recommend it.


  • Do you need your books to have a strong driving plot, with no time for diversions and amusing episodes? Well, don’t worry too much, since it’s not a long novel – but it may not be perfect for you.


  • Do you need gritty, authentic realism? Must everything be dry and serious? Does everything have to happen next to a kitchen sink, and should more dialogue be conducted through grunts than through speeches? Then this may not be the book you want.


  • Do you want your books to have a clear, wholesome sense of moral certitude and respect for upright conventional mores? Then the fact that this novel was banned and the author prosecuted for indecency might be a clue that this one may not be entirely up your alley.


  • Are you now strongly tempted to go and read Jurgen? If so, go and read Jurgen. Like I say, it’s not a gigantic book, and this is a very long review, so you’re probably better off just reading the novel right now. You can always come back for my thoughts about it later. If not, but you are considering maybe one day getting around to adding it to your TBR pile, then do, please, feel free to read this review…

Continue reading

Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

“I found myself speaking softly as if I were telling an old tale to a young child. And giving it a happy ending, when all know that tales never end, and the happy ending is but a moment to catch one’s breath before the next disaster.”

Fitz there is certainly… well, being Fitz. He’s putting the worst possible spin on things; no doubt the Fool, for instance, would give that thought a very different emphasis. But beneath the pessimism, Fitz has managed to put his finger on something fundamental about his world, the world of Robin Hobb novels: there are no happy endings. There are no sad endings, either. There just aren’t any endings at all.

In a way, that was the premise of Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, which took what was at the time considered one of the greatest endings in the genre, that of her earlier Farseer trilogy, and turned it on its head simply by insisting, “there are no endings… so what happened next?” – I don’t know if that’s how Hobb was thinking of it at the time, but that, in effect, is what happened. And at some point or other she did think of it, because I think that was a clear continuing theme of her Rain Wild Chronicles, and now of the (terribly-named!) The Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

There are no endings. That’s, on the one hand, an incredibly fatuous thing to say… so obvious it’s not worth mentioning… and yet on the other hand it’s a stunningly confrontational statement of intent, a virtual declaration of war against the reader. Because every reader yearns for an ending – for the most part happy ones, but fitting ones at the very least. A story without an ending is scarcely a story at all. Everything we have been taught about stories has trained us to seek out the ending – it’s the ending that gives meaning to the journey. Remember Miss Prism’s prim, Victorian definition of literature, when asked, in The Importance of Being Earnest, about the plot of her ‘three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality’? “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Many more adventurous novelists than Miss Prism have challenged the details of this. Tom Stoppard, for instance, suggested: “The bad ended unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” But the fundament remains unchanged: it is only when we have reached the end that we know what story we have read – comedy, tragedy, romance… sometimes only then do we believe we know who the author was, what they ‘endorse’, as though the author were a stern, judgemental goddess, handing out rewards and punishments when the characters have fought through the tribulations of the final days and reached the author’s throne in the Ending, from where their souls are scattered this way or that into the blessed Epilogue…

But one way or another, we need to have an ending, the way we need harmonic resolution – the way an unresolved harmony fills us with a bone-deep craving like no other respectable craving, a craving that left unfulfilled can seem to drive us to the point of madness… it is not even just that we need to find out what happens next, since in a way an ending is the opposite of that, a sleight of hand in which the author satisfies us with ‘resolution’ and persuades us we no longer want to know ‘what happens next’. It is resolution we crave: progression into a ground state, the restoration of stability, an end of our labours. What matters about happy ever after is not the ‘happy’ (though that helps) but the ever. What happens? How do they end up? They live happily ever after, and that’s all that happens, and that is the end of our questions.

This is the UK cover

For some reason I’m barely a few paragraphs into this review and already I’m sneaking in pretentious quotations. Sorry about that; but while I’m at it, here’s another. It’s a wise old maxim from the world of economics, originally applied to the theoretical analysis of balance of payments deficits, and it’s called “Stein’s Law”, after its inventor, Herbert Stein, chairman of the American government’s ‘Council of Economic Advisors’ during the 1970s. It’s a rule with a surprisingly broad potential field of application, and it says simply: “If a thing cannot go on forever, it will stop.” On some level, we know this, because it’s just what the words mean. And yet most of us, most of the time, forget about it. Because, after all, nothing can go on forever. Everything stops. The question is not whether a trend will cease, but in what way it will cease.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he talked about population growth. People who worried the population growth of the 1960’s would render the planet earth uninhabitable were, he said, rather missing the point. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that 1960’s population growth trends, if they did not stop, would inevitably, mathematically, mean that within two thousand years every single atom in the known universe would have to be converted into part of a human being and still there wouldn’t be enough matter to make up all the people who would have to exist, let alone to provide anywhere for them to have lunch. Those population trends could not continue… therefore they would stop. The real question – the interesting question perhaps for a science fiction writer – is how they would stop. And, of course, what would happen next as a result.*

“And they all lived happy ever after,” says the fairy tale. But they didn’t. They couldn’t. The world couldn’t just stop in its tracks to let that happy moment carry on into infinity. It cannot go on forever, so it must stop. So what stops it? Well, within the world of a story, the answer is obvious: the story stops it. A story is a thing with its own momentum, after all; sooner or later, it catches up with you. You kill the dark lord, eventually his son comes back looking for revenge. You reinstate the monarchy; eventually the good king’s son or grandson or great-grandson will turn out a tyrant. Bring peace, and one day your suddenly-unemployed generals will rebel. Everything you do has consequences. Consequences never go away – so there can never be any real ending. Karma, innit.

Robin Hobb knows this, and that’s what she’s been doing in her recent career. Saying, again and again “no that’s NOT the end… what happens next?” – to the point where she has her audience thinking it even before the ‘end’ is reached. It’s… upsetting, frankly. We crave a certain ending – a happy ending, or something beautifully, elegantly tragic for a change – but at the same time she is telling us “no, think about it, how could that be the end?”

Every happy ending is just a pause for breath, at best – at worst, it can be form of imprisonment, an imposition of stasis. There is no stasis in Hobb’s books. At the same time, though, the same is true of tragedies – every tragedy is just the backstory for what comes next. So every disaster is tinted with hope, and every triumph is clouded by the fear of loss.

This war on the expected is present in another way also: the richness of possibility in Hobb’s work. At several points, prophecy in Hobb’s world is described as simply seeing all the possible paths that lead away from every individual moment; and frankly, that’s what it’s like reading this book. Every page is filled with potentially significant details, and every two or three pages there is something, some premonition, that points the way toward a new possible future for these characters, this world, this plot. Some of this is foreshadowing; much of it isn’t. In earlier books, I thought Hobb was fond of red herrings, but by this stage ‘red herring’ is a red herring – it’s not that there are false possibilities sprinkled through the text, but that the whole of the text is so dense in its possibilities that is makes no sense to single out this paragraph, that page, as a ‘red herring’. Instead, the pages simply move closer to the texture of real life. Every moment is filled with potential; every insignificant detail may prove significant, and every pivotal moment may prove irrelevant. We do not have the benefit of great glowing signs pointing at things and saying “pay attention, this bit is important!”

There is, in theory, one more book to go in this trilogy, and perhaps this trilogy of trilogies (in theory – I suspect the odds of the final novel being split into two are high). There are probably half a dozen different novels Hobb could write at this point that would feel like fitting conclusions to this series. But there are so many hints and jinks throughout this book that, had Hobb wanted to take some other path through it, there would probably have been a dozen, two dozen different stories that could have been told.

This is also the UK cover. There is a US cover. I’m just not going to show it to you because I hate it.

Of course, the one thing we can be sure of is that Hobb isn’t going to tell the conventional story. Or rather: she won’t tell the conventional story in the traditional conventional way. A lot of what Hobb does is tell old stories in new ways – richer, more lifelike, more intense ways – and that’s exactly what happens here. Anyone who has read to the end of Fool’s Assassin knows exactly what direction Fool’s Quest is going to take… they just might be surprised at how it does it. And, in particular, how slow it is.

That’s not a new trick for Hobb. Back in her Tawny Man trilogy, the whole second half of the second novel, and much of the first half of the third novel – and arguably even the first half of the second novel too – were material that would just be ignored in a traditional epic fantasy. The normal formula is: “X happens, which necessitates that A does Y, so then A does Y.” Hobb defies this. Instead, she wants to know how A finds out about X. How does A react to hearing about X? How does X decide that they need to do Y? How do they feel about doing Y? Are there alternatives to doing Y? How will they do Y? How will they prepare and plan to do Y?” – to take the crudest example, Fool’s Fate spends an awful lot of time on a boat, when most fantasy novels would simply say “the journey took [insert number of weeks]”.

There’s a reason why more authors don’t do this. It slows the pace, and just as importantly it distorts the pace away from its natural rhythm. But there can be such a rich reward, as Fool’s Quest demonstrates, from taking the scenic route. Because although we think about plots in terms of things that happen… what actually happens to happen doesn’t, in itself, really matter. The meaning and the significance come from the pauses between the things that happen. The power comes from how people react to what happens, and how they prepare themselves for what they believe will happen. The actual occasion of things, the business of the events, is only the acting out of the story written in the quiet moments.

The power is in the pauses; and boy is Fool’s Quest a powerful book. Powerful almost beyond comparison – I’ve read emotional books before, but nothing to compare to the crushing intensity of this novel. Reading normal books, I don’t cry. Reading powerful and emotional books, there can be a part of the book where I cry. In Fool’s Quest, there were just the bits when I was actually crying, and the bits when I was only moist of eye. And it wasn’t just tragedy after tragedy. Some of it was tragedy, but more of it was wringing the full affect out of tragedy, and much of it – the most emotional bit of all – was triumph. But then again, like I say: in this novel, triumph and disaster go hand-in-hand, neither ever out of the reader’s mind, like the face and the back of a dancer whirling.

This is what epic fantasy can do: the weight of words and time, the seven lengthy novels that I’ve spent inside FitzChivalry’s head, have allowed me to care deeply about him (and sensitively, the way a scientific instrument becomes sensitive through fine tuning), and about those around him, and the emotional intensity is heightened by narrative devices built into the very world for that very purpose, and laid bare by the brutality and the austerity of the setting. I cannot imagine how a story like this could be told in any other mainstream commercial genre. This is, as George RR Martin commented of the first novel in the trilogy, ‘fantasy as it ought to be written’. But the flipside of that is that this is also what the rest of fantasy is missing. I can understand if not every author wants to write books like Fool’s Quest, and if not every reader wants to commit the time, the effort, and the ravaging of the soul required to read books like Fool’s Quest. But every author in the genre ought to read Hobb’s entire cycle, to learn just what the genre can do, and what they can do in the genre. To learn what havoc can be wreaked on the reader’s mind with a little patience, a little carefulness, a little, very little, sleight of hand.

If part of the power of Hobb, particularly in these later books, comes from the way she defies worn conventions of plot, pace, and consequently character, it is also greatly in debt to the shear brutality that has been present in Hobb right from the beginning. Hobb is not typically cited as a ‘grimdark’ author, nor should she be, as however dark she may be she is never really grim; and in any case, the impact of her violence (physical and symbolic) is only heavier and deeper for its being so often hidden and velveted. This is not a twisted little boy’s-own adventure playing at cultural memories of cowboys and gangsters, romping through depravity sardonically, reassuringly… comfortingly. This is a book, and author, that wants to talk about the horrors of mankind as well as our glories – horrors whether petty or apocalyptic. Yet she doesn’t wallow in the darkness for the sake of wallowing, for the sake of borrowing from it some sheen of gravitas. She keeps the violence penned in, and lets little drips and drabs out like drops of acid.

There’s a lot of that acid in Fool’s Quest in particular, and some readers are not happy about this. Some will ask whether the ferocity and ungentility of that violence is really ‘necessary’. Couldn’t she tell this story in a ‘nicer’ way? In particular, many, glossing over the killings and the mutilations, the bereavements and despairs, will focus on the rape that has been such a constant thread in Hobb’s vision of fantasy. It’s certainly been more prominent elsewhere in Hobb’s work – in both The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles, rape in all its species, from child abuse to domestic abuse via misogyny and exploitation, is one of the dominant themes and a major driver for the plot – but she’s rarely thrown it quite as violently and offputtingly in the face of the reader as here. Isn’t talking about this unduly unpleasant for polite, comfortable reading? Did she have to make rape seem so ugly? Isn’t purposefully crafting a world in which rape is no less common – or even more common – than in contemporary reality inherently misogynist? Especially given that, in a novel wedded so closely and so inescapably to a male narrator discussing his own deeds as a male protagonist in a male-lead (if not quite male-dominated) society, rape will almost always be more important as a source of motivation for a male bystander than as a motivation for a female victim, and will always be told through a male perspective?

No, not really. Indeed, I suspect the author would feel quite the opposite. My mind goes back to that passage in (if I recall correctly?) Assassin’s Quest in which the Fool attempts to say what became of a particular woman in a raided village, and in his answer loses her individuality into the sea of human suffering, as we realise that each possible future for that woman becomes an actual future for some woman, in some village. And I also remember the passages in which those gifted with the Skill, Hobb’s telepathic gift/curse fruitlessly fight out their war against the raiders through the bodies of others – kings and princes and bastards of royal blood who spend their nights living and dying again and again the sufferings of their people; and I remember how the ultimate villainy in that first trilogy was, in essence, to retreat and to abandon, to shut oneself up in fine houses with fine wines and not talk about what was happening out on the coast. Hobb has no sympathy with that attitude; and I don’t think she would have much sympathy with applying it to fiction, either. Hobb doesn’t want us to avoid talking about victims; she lets her men be motivated by the horrors suffered by women, because that is how change happens. People with power, people with safety, people with privilege, have to be motivated to change the world… because the problems that can be solved purely by the powerless, by themselves, are by definition not the big problems. Hobb could have written these novels about the rape victims themselves, dealing with their problems themselves… but then they would have been books about sod all changing, because these victims don’t have power, that’s why they were in a position to be victimised. [Although, for the record, her Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles books are both primarily lead by female characters, including rape victims; it’s also worth pointing out that many of her characters may not be presented as the protagonists of these books, yet are presented with enough depth and complexity to be so – I’ve just been having a debate, for instance, about how much Starling is made to seem worse than she is by Fitz’s blinkered perspective, and how the world looks from her side of the story – unlike so many novels, I believe Hobb’s works have enough subtlety around the edges that the perspectives of peripheral characters can still be experienced by a careful reader]. So these are not going to be books in which we politely, respectfully, do not talk about bad things, and they are going to be books in which the sufferings of the powerless are going to be motivations for people who may have the power to do something about it (or not, of course…).

On the other hand, going back again to Farseer: the ultimate nightmare in those trilogies – not merely a villainy but a nightmare – was the loss of empathy. We have to be able to confront tragedy, but not become inured to its pain. That is, I suppose, the path that Hobb traces between the soi dissant progressives on the one hand, with their calls for a bowdlerised, utopianised fantasy of empowerment and escapism, and on the other hand the tawdriest excesses of grimdark slaughterporn, in which the worst of life is made to seem unthreatening through hyperbole, repetition, and flippancy. Face the suffering, and be motivated by it. That may be how those two extremes come to seem almost the same, two sides of the same disconnected coin…

This is, incidentally, also something that progresses through the course of Hobb’s novels, as her protagonist progresses. Thinking in raw terms, the content of Farseer is much more unpleasant than that of Fool’s Quest… it just doesn’t seem that way. Because Farseer is told by, and about, a young man, with the spiritual cushioning of youth. He is able to gloss over many things, and rebound from others. The Fitz of Fool’s Quest, on the other hand, is a man entering old age, and he has a far more sunken, haunted look to his eyes. Things hurt more now. And ye gods but when I was reading Assassin’s Quest I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that…

Specifically, this is the hardback cover. I can’t show you the paperback cover, because it doesn’t exist yet. Also, when it does exist, it will probably be identical to the hardback.

In fact, this is a Fitz who frankly, after the events of Fool’s Asssassin, has been left on the brink of madness. Fitz has always been prone to depression – something that he at least seems to be more aware of in his later years, even though that hasn’t solved the problem – and now the wrenching intensity of the catastrophes of the last book, combined with an accumulated lifetime of petty tragedies, have created a man who seems compelled by fury and lean with death. It’s to his credit, then, and to Hobb’s, that he is also now perhaps at his most caring, his most sensitive. Even if he would now make Liam Neeson go shit himself. [Although, disturbingly, he still remains only the second- or third-most sociopathic of the ‘heroes’ of the novel].

It is, in a way, exactly that sensitivity, that caring, that has left him so dangerous, to himself and to others. It is what has made him unpredictable – what has transformed him into a wild marble careening around this so-carefully-set-up board. And most fascinating perhaps is the way that he goes beyond the borders of what seemed to be his world, barging unceremoniously into the territory of other novels. The ‘northern’ (Fitz-based) and ‘southern’ (non-Fitz-based) strands of Hobb’s cycle have never been entirely kept apart, thanks to You Know Who’s appearance in The Liveship Traders and several Liveship characters having cameo performances in The Tawny Man. But Fool’s Quest is the first time we see these two sub-worlds collide head-on, and I look forward eagerly to seeing the fall-out in the next installment. Needless to say, putting Fitz into the world of the Rain Wilds throws an entirely different light onto the events of the earlier novels, as well as updating us on events we’ve missed in the most tantalising and infuriatingly distant way. If only we could just have some of these people sit down and talk with one another honestly and openly…

…but that’s always the frustration with Hobb. Everybody always has ulterior motives, prejudices, secrets that they need to hide, or think they need to hide. Everybody plays with their cards close to their chests, not only the clinically paranoid Fitz… but then again, the shear intensity of the emotions bared whenever a true heart-to-heart occurs shows exactly why people find excuses to avoid them…

I need to stop waffling soon. How about this as a summary: Fool’s Quest may well be the best and/or my favourite fantasy novel. It wasn’t an easy read – though frankly I am left less troubled by the overt violence and emotion, and more by the creeping feeling that things are getting worse and worse for Fitz, cognitively and behaviourally speaking, and there is less and less chance of a happy ending. But while… oh, hang on.

I’ve just remembered, I need to mention the role of prophecy. Hobb gives us perhaps the best portrayal of prophecy that I can remember in fantasy: while there is never any doubt about the sincerity of the prophets, or the reality of their experiences, the prophecies themselves are invariably couched in such terms that the readers (and the characters) can never quite be sure what is meaningful and what is not, what will happen and what has happened already – if we were not so close emotionally to the issuers of prophecy, I suspect the reader would even be able to deny the predictive power of the prophecies altogether. That doesn’t sound like much: it’s how everybody tries to write prophecy – meaningful in hindsight, but cryptic and inconclusive before the fact. The problem is, it’s hard to do this while making these prophecies feel natural, feel like real, human visionary experiences. Hobb, unlike most writers, succeeds.

Needless to say, where Hobb does not succeed is in her villains, who remain ultimately ridiculous – beginning at human, they pass through menacing and frightening and soon emerge into the realm of laughable caricatures. It continues to baffle me that an author who gave us one of the genre’s greatest, most nuanced and (horrifically, punishingly) sympathetic villains in The Liveship Traders has in every other work of hers given us these ridiculous moustache-twirlers. So far, however, the villains of this series have been elevated by two things: first, by the cleverness of their fundamental conceit, which makes them intriguing and peculiarly unnerving; and second by the decision to, so far, reveal them to us only in the form of their relatively low-ranking – and hence confused, frustrated and limited – agents. I fear that – as in The Tawny Man – what subtlety there is in that regard will be thrown out in the concluding novel as we arrive (as, at least, I assume we will, though nothing can be taken for granted with Hobb) at the rotted centre of their evil.

…right, can I finish now? Fool’s Quest certainly wasn’t an easy read, although strangely, despite the harrowing, I do sort of think of it as comfort reading – perhaps because in Fitz the readers can be assured of always going through these adventures with a well-beloved friend at their side (no pun intended). It’s like curling up in a comfortable warm chair in the middle of the winter – and although these books unaccountably come out in summer, it’s hard not to hear the blizzard howling at the windows when reading this. Both literally and psychologically, Fool’s Quest takes us into the bitterest and barrenest winter of these chronicles. It is a triumphant – though never triumphalist – display of what is possible in the fantasy genre, from its worldbuilding (the place-name ‘Wortletree’ aside – you can’t get them all right…) to its characterisation, to its scenes of action and suspense. Fantasy as it ought to be written.

It’s a bit unfortunate really that I’ve chosen to write a really long review of a book I happen to only have one good cover of. I should go back and write an incredibly long review of The Man Who Was Thursday or something instead. There are dozens of great covers for that one.

Adrenaline: 4/5. There’s a lot of catching-breath. But there’s also a lot of tension, and some explosive action scenes that are as well-written as always. It’s like if a Liam Neeson film were also a deep and introspective character study.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. “Emotion” does not begin to describe the intensity of this novel.

Thought: 4/5. Deliberate pacing, subtle nods and winks (how many novels can turn an observation on the herbal seasoning of a chicken into a fist-punching moment?) a constant web of possibilities, an atmosphere tinged with paranoia, and a very clever conceit underlying the antagonists make for a thoroughly thinky experience, even if it’s not concerned with particularly complicated theorising.

Beauty: 4/5. Hobb’s prose is never going to win literary awards – and perhaps that’s for the best, as we are after all having the whole story narrated to us by a character, and a character with a very particular voice. But where I think her prose started off weak, by now it has become really quite polished – heavy, but not incapable of moments of beauty. The real beauty here, though, is in the situations, the ironies, the call-backs and the culminations. The appropriateness of things.

Craft: 5/5. As I say, the prose isn’t the best ever invented, but it quite suffices. The character work is of higher than the first order, and the plotting is exquisite.

Endearingness: 5/5. Some people might quail either at its slow pacing or at its unpleasant moments. Me, I think this is about as adorable as fiction can be – immersive, intense, yet welcoming and humane.

Originality: 4/5. There is a degree of familiarity about the contour of the plot, and about some of the incidents. That said, the perpetual pluripotency of its plot makes even familiar turns seem surprising, and this surprise in combination with the distinctive nature of the delivery push this above par for originality.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. While fans cheering for this character or that plot development may be disappointed by things not going their way, I cannot really think of any significant flaw in this novel. Literary afficionados will complain that it is not a prose poem, and that the plot is rooted in genre; but these are simply part of the product on offer, and the book would not be ‘better’ by conforming more closely to ‘literary’ conventions instead; it is also worth noting that while the language does have that slightly heavy and old-fashioned tone common to the genre, that doesn’t prevent it from delivering fantastic lines, whether melancholy ruminations on life or just witty deadpan remarks. Similarly, the large page count and slow pace are simply part of the subgenre, intentional choices, and do not betray any authorial indecision or structural flaccidity. The text is sometimes painful, and at other times frustrating, but both are likewise intentional and calculated manoeuvres by the author. The closest I can get to an overt flaw is the excessive, cartoonish evil of the antagonists; but as the ultimate antagonists themselves remain off the page, and the proximate antagonists we actually encounter are effectively humanised and fleshed out, this is more a fear, for the following book, and on the basis of past experience, rather than an actual issue with this book itself. It could also be objected that despite being a lengthy novel there is little actual resolution here (quite the contrary, as it ends on something approaching a cliffhanger – although the book certainly does have more form and completion in its own right than did Dragon Keeper, which did originate as the first half of a split novel and is still observably so). But to accuse this middle book of a trilogy of being, in essence, the middle book of a trilogy would be to shake a fist at literature itself rather than at this novel. At least in a book like this one there is genuinely the sense that the word-count, the novel-count, will be paid off – especially since the experience here is at least as important as the future conclusion. And finally, Fool’s Quest did leave me with some fears for how this series is going to end, how on earth Hobb is going to be able to wrap all this up satisfactorily… but again, that is a problem, if it turns out to be a problem, for next time. This book, in itself… I can find no serious flaws.

Put simply, this novel is brilliant. It’s a shame that so (relatively) few people will haul their way through 15 heavy novels to reach this point. After all, what’s the point of reviewing a novel like Fool’s Quest? If you’re a Hobb fan, you know how good it is already. If you’re not a Hobb fan, a good review of Book 15 is probably not going to get you to pick up Book 1. But I think it needs to be said anyway: this isn’t just the latest comfort-read extension of a perennial epic fantasy cycle… it is that… but it’s also plainly and frankly a brilliant novel.

Maybe if I include a picture of the cover enough times, it’ll work as subliminal advertising?


*[A more down-to-earth example is provided by the ongoing Republican Presidential primaries. The former front-runner, JEB! (real name John Ellis Bush), has based his campaign on a promise to return America to the 4% per annum GDP growth of the Clinton years, figures not seen since his brother took over the economy (and only ever seen for four or more consecutive years during the ‘90s and during the early ‘60s, but that’s another issue). What would 4% growth mean, in the long term? Well, assuming GDP per capita growth continues to track GDP growth as it has historically (i.e. there isn’t a sudden baby boom), and assuming that the relationship of median income to GDP per capita remains approximately the same (the average US citizen earns about $24,000, compared to the $56,000 they’d get if annual production were simply shared out equally), 4% growth would mean that by the end of this century the average American would have an income, in real terms (that is, in terms of relative spending power today, taking into account inflation), of about $725,000 a year – in other words, under this plan, by 2100 every American would only have to work about 5 years of their life, and could then live the rest of their life off interest and investments. Well that sounds fun! But it’s nothing like 2200, by which time everyone will have a personal income of $36million… (if you think I’m making fun of Bush, consider: if GDP growth remains at its current anaemic, sluggish, unacceptable great-recession level… by 2300, the average American will still have a yearly income of $2.5million, in real terms. That’s not a bad worst-case scenario!)… this has nothing much to do with Robin Hobb, I just thought I’d share…]

Now go buy it!