Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

“And he knows you.” The words were almost an accusation. “He once told me that you were incapable of entirely trusting anyone. That wanting to trust, and fearing to, would always divide your soul.”

The story of FitzChivalry Farseer was concluded, it seemed, with the publication of Assassin’s Quest in 1997; Robin Hobb’s following trilogy, The Liveship Traders, may have been set in the same world as the original Farseer Trilogy, but was only tangentially connected to it. And yet, four years after we left Fitz dreaming of his future, we returned to him in this book, Fool’s Errand, the first volume of a new trilogy (Tawny Man). Four years for us, perhaps – but for Fitz it has been a long, but surprisingly uneventful, fifteen winters. His old life has been left far behind him; he is a man now, not merely middle-aged, but old beyond his years. His life is quiet, almost eremitic. The business of assassination, the world of politics, the society of the Royal Court, his friends, his family – he has put aside all these childish things to live simply, in a cottage, with an orphan boy, writing, hunting, growing his own vegetables. Struggling against the addictive lure of the Skill, and suppressing his wanderlust, waiting for himself to surrender everything.

But then a series of visits by friends both old and new disrupts that melancholic idyll, and Fitz realises than he cannot avoid his duties for ever. A new crisis is threatening the Farseer dynasty, and Fitz may be the only man who can defeat it; yet to do so he must return to a world that believes him long since dead.

There are a lot of books and films about old veterans returning to the fight. There’s almost always an awkward little section at the beginning, showing us the serene but boring life of our protagonist, and then giving him a good enough reason to get back in the saddle. That’s exactly what happens here, too… and then it keeps on happening… and happening some more… it takes Fitz almost 200 pages, of a less-than-600-page novel, to actually come back to Buckkeep. It’s slow – no, glacial – it’s sentimental, it’s introspective… and in any other book it would be intolerable, but here, it works. It’s a joy.

Why? Well, part of it is that these are characters we know and love – both Fitz and several other characters from the earlier trilogy renew their acquaintance with us in these chapters, and for me the euphoria of this section was much like that felt at a party where you finally see a lot of your old friends for the first time. Even when, as for me, it hasn’t been so long since you last saw them (I re-read Farseer last year), it’s immediately apparent how long it has been, how long it has felt, for the characters themselves. We feel Fitz’s loneliness, his nostalgia, and it awakens our own. It’s an indulgent pleasure – one of the few times a fantasy novelist gives us the luxury of being with our friends, not when they are saving the world or saving their own skins, but when they are having some nice cheese, some brandy, some coffee, just sitting around having a chat on a nice summer evening.

The other reason, however, is deeper. The fact that the action takes so long to kick off should warn the reader, very clearly, that this is not a book about action. It’s not about things that happen – it’s about the people who do them. Farseer and Liveships were both character-driven stories, but this new Tawny Man trilogy takes that a step or two further. This is all about character. It’s all about Fitz. We need this indolent beginning to come to terms with that – to immerse us fully into his soul. Fitz did a lot of running around in the previous trilogy, and now he gets to sit and reflect on his life. That may not necessarily be a good thing for him.

Ultimately, this is a love story. It’s about people who love each other, and people who may seem to but don’t. Romantic love, yes, but also the love of fathers for their children, and of children for their fathers – Fitz had three fathers, in a way, in Farseer, and because that was a story about a boy, those relationships were paramount, but here, in Tawny Man, he is a middle-aged man, and the focus is shifting from those fathers (toward whom the dominant emotion is becoming worry and concern) to the next generation. This time, Fitz has three children – again, in a way, and Fitz’s relationship with those children will dominant this trilogy. And yet, all relationships are secondary here, because what is at stake is Fitz’s very ability to have relationships. A brutalised child has become a broken man – a man who perhaps will never be able to trust anyone, and yet who, at the same time, perhaps trusts too many people, and too far.

US covers for Hobb continue to be inferior, although at least these are better than the ghastly US Farseer covers.

This is the third time I’ve read this book, and it benefits enourmously for the re-read, at least for me, because what I did not at first appreciate was the extent of Fitz’s failure both as a human being and as a narrator. We know he is flawed, and yet instinctively we take him at his word. When he berates himself for making the wrong decision, we believe the decision must have been wrong – when he realises the truth about someone, we believe that what he has realised is true. This is not so much a matter of brute facts, of errors in factual theory that Fitz makes, but more his way of looking at the world. He is like a timid child, reaching out desparately for affection, for trust, for purpose, and then recoiling sharply at the slightest threatening gesture. We see his world through the eyes of a paranoid and melancholic man, and inevitably, through those eyes, it seems as though his fears are justified. But when we look at the brute facts, we realise that things are rarely as clear-cut as Fitz believes them to be. I’m currently watching some House, and there are strong resemblances between the two lead characters – both are men whose unusual perspicacity is used to reinforce their own cynicism, their own sense of independence, while they turn a blind eye to their own many failures of logic, their own dependency on others, their own (at least in the case of earlier seasons of House) idealism. Fitz, of course, is a lot nicer. There is a lot more of the idealist left in him – and that idealism is a loyalty to a more subservient, more conventional morality. Much of this novel is an exploration of the battle within Fitz between his desires and his duty – his desires, which may be selfish, egotistical, and fundamentally normal and good, and his duty, which is selfless, and dedicated, and brutal in its cold amorality. Fitz doesn’t know who he is; and though much of the novel is his endeavour to discover who or what may be worth trusting in the world, and how far, much of the novel (sometimes the same parts) is also about to what extent people should allow themselves to trust Fitz. Because if he doesn’t know who he is, nobody else has any chance. Everybody thinks they know what to expect from Fitz – everybody sees the rorschach of his actions in their own ways – but it remains to be seen who, if anybody, truly knows him. And will that be a discovery, or will it be a decision for Fitz to make?

Don’t be mislead, though. This isn’t six hundred pages of self-conscious moral dilemma. Hobb doesn’t do those. The action may take a while to start, but once it has, it’s not long before she hits the accelerator, and we arrive breathless at the end, cursing her habit of making the first volume of her trilogies semi-stand-alones. The action shuts down as soon as it gets going, leaving us eager for more, ready for the main affair after this powerful reintroduction.

There are some flaws. For one thing, though I’d be fascinated to see the thoughts of somebody who came to the story at this point, I don’t think it would make much sense to them, or resonate so fully. You’ve got to make it through three volumes of Farseer first (Liveships is non-essential, though does help fill in some gaps and supplies a few in-jokes) – and although I like the earlier books, I think it’s a little unfortunate that perhaps Hobb’s best work is so reliant on a weaker earlier series. That said, if you didn’t like Farseer, you probably won’t like Tawny Man either, since the central character of Fitz is such a dominant one. A more serious complaint is that some moments of inner conflict are just too over-done, with one particularly difficult section of three or four pages having three different moments overly reminiscent of the moralising of children’s cartoons.  The action finds itself too compressed, and as a result too much happens off-screen, making the protagonist insufficiently central to events, and the climax a somewhat unsatisfying deus ex machina that would probably work better if there were less post hoc explanation appended. The end of the novel is, as often with Hobb, rather unsuccesful, a drawn-out anticlimax that sets up the pieces but lacks emotional engagement – though it must be admitted that it is rather more accomplished than the equivalent sections of earlier books.

Overall, this is a strong return to the characters and setting that is not only a good read in its own right but also sets up many potential and interesting threads for subsequent books, while encouraging us to see the whole of the earlier trilogy in a newer, more cynical and yet perhaps more life-affirming, light. Whether you like it or not will depend almost entirely on whether you like Fitz, who is more whiney here than ever and even more a perfect mary sue; on the other hand, if you don’t like Fitz, you’re unlikely to make it this far anyway.

The new UK covers follow the respectable-but-boring single-item-on-bland-background trend, but are one of the better examples, I think

Adrenaline: 4/5. Strange to say about a book with such a slow introduction, but this is a thrilling read. The plot moves rapidly once it gets going, and although flat-out ‘action scenes’ are scarce, they remain one of the author’s strong points. In particular, one viscerally brutal fight scene puts the ‘animal cruelty’ scenes in Game of Thrones to shame.

Emotion: 4/5. I didn’t cry when You Know What happened, but I know a lot of people did and I can see why. It’s a beautiful (if cliché) scene, and just caps the continual deep emotional engagement that the book allows us to have with its characters – engagement that is surprising when you think about it dispassionately and realise that, actually, very few of these characters are actually nice people. Fitz’s cynical eye shows us all their weaknesses, exposes their moral questionability, and yet at the same time gives them enough of a golden light to let us love them all. Even the ones we can’t stand.

Thought: 3/5. It’s not dumb – there’re enough twists and surprises and reflections and dilemmas that my brain was kept active; but it’s also not really a puzzler, with the plot going by too fast to encourage much prediction, and most of the dilemmas and revelations aiming more for an emotional response than an intellectual one.

Beauty: 3/5. Not a lot to say. Not ugly; not beautiful.

Craft: 4/5. Prose is reliable, a step up from the earlier trilogy, but still nothing remarkable. The grasp and portrayal of character, however, is superb, there are many excellent scenes (of both action and characterisation – cleverly, she manages to hide much of the otherwise dull exposition in the guise of character studies), and the only flaws are an occasional excess of enthusiasm, a slight inelegance about the climax, and arguably some pacing problems.

Endearingness: 4/5. Doesn’t hit the top mark because it’s a bit disjointed, with the main plot not having enough time to really hit home, and I didn’t like that heavy-handedness it sometimes shows in making its points clearer-than-clear. Stopped me loving the book. I do, however, really, really like the book, and greatly enjoyed reading it.

Originality: 3/5. It’s an epic fantasy quest novel. On the other hand, it’s unusual in the age of the protagonist, and the emphasis placed on characterisation, and the world is a little more noteworthy than the average fantasy setting, albeit in a low-key, unspectacular way. But back on the first hand, it is an epic fantasy quest novel.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Actually, on the verge of being Very Good, but I held back from letting personal affection shape my assessment too strongly. Tawny Man is probably one of my favourite series of books, and this is a very solid beginning to it.

P.S. Just heard that Hobb is working on a new Fitz series. Overjoyed and worried – as she says herself, if she does it badly, it’s the end of her career. However, she’s apparently working on it very slowly, carefully, and secretly, so let’s hope for the best. Then again, this actually tells us nothing, since I’ve always expected (to the point of certainty) she’d return to the character one day, and her current plans don’t seem much more precise than that ‘one day’, so far.



P.P.S. I don’t normally do this, but I feel I ought to add a comment about the edition I have. It’s the Voyager hardback, and I’m quite disappointed by it. It’s less than ten years old, I’ve only read it three times, opened it a few times more than that… and it creaks. None of the pages have fallen out yet, but several are going to, with the glue already visible. The ‘hard’ cover over the spine is barely harder than paper itself and dented at top and bottom. And more personally, it’s a shame it doesn’t smell more.