This is the kind of book that they don’t let you write unless the seven previous books in the series have all made them a lot of money. Why? It’s six hundred pages long and it has no plot.
Don’t be misled: this isn’t like a late-Jordan glacial doorstopper where it takes six hundred pages to move from one end of the room to the other. Things happen. In fact, compared to my memory of the book, I was surprised just how much did happen. It’s just that there’s no plot. If that sounds paradoxical, imagine an episode of Deadwood, or The Wire – the episode begins, some stuff happens, and then the episode ends. Sometimes it ends after some big endingy thing has happened, but other times it just… ends. That’s what this book is like. There are plots here – some wrapping up from the last book, some setting up for the next book, some linking the trilogy with the Liveship Trader trilogy… but the book itself does not have a plot. There are maybe four major plot strands, plus the threads of Fitz’s relationships with maybe five or six other characters (which sometimes go along with the plot strands, othertimes not). I felt the major climax of the book (the point where we finally find out what this book and the next book are about, what the big plot of the trilogy will be) happened around three hundred pages in; then there was a heap of dramatic stuff, then another climax around four hundred and fifty pages in. Then some other stuff. It ends with the conclusion of perhaps the most important arc of the book… but the arc is a low-key one and the ending is exceptionally quiet. And the epilogue is pointless and trite.
But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t love this book. In fact, I found the first half brilliant. The character of Fitz gradually thaws, as he accepts the need to return to some semblance of life after his long self-imposed exile, and he slowly finds a place in a world he thought had no place for him. Inevitably, when frozen things begin to thaw, a great deal of damage is done to them, and it’s a painful book for Fitz – or rather, maintaining the metaphor, the defrosted and reanimated Fitz is forced to confront pains dealt long ago, that his (metaphorical!) cryogenic preservation had allowed him to ignore. At the same time – as in the original trilogy – important events are set into motion around him, and the leftover plot of The Liveship Traders bounces at a tangent into the side of this book, leaving everyone a little discombobulated. This trilogy takes the same approach as the original trilogy – it gives us a standard heroic plot, but it tells the story from an unexpected, peripheral perspective, and in the process gives us, as it were, the realistic inner workings of the myth. It’s stunning, in fact, just how cliché some plot points are. I don’t want to spell it out for you, but the big moment in this book, which will shape the final volume fundamentally, is lifted straight out of the fairy tale/epic fantasy Big Book of Clichés. [One hint: it involves a Quest.] But it doesn’t read like a cliché. More importantly, it doesn’t feel like a parody either. What it is is, in a way, a deconstruction of the myth: it takes it from the mythic realm and fleshes it out with motivations and characters and consequences until it looks like an entirely realistic plot point. It was actually a few pages after this happens that it suddenly struck me: hey, did [plot point redacted]? – why yes, yes he did – I hadn’t thought of it like that, but that is actually what just happened.
This is, if anything, a book about a man facing up to consequences. But it’s also a book about masks, and the truth of masks. Everyone – absolutely everyone – in this book is wearing a mask of some kind. Everyone is one thing to some people and something else to others. Fitz, of course, cannot take off his mask, both for psychological and practical reasons, and he is stuck living an artificial life – neither his old life nor the life he has built for himself in his cottage – while his history is known to some, and to others he is an enigma neither one thing nor another; and from his peripheral perspective we see too the multiple personas worn by those around him, as even friends and allies hide aspects of themselves from one another. If I were to make a list of the secrets in this book, who knew them and who knew who knew them, I would soon run out of electrons; but unlike in the cheaper, tawdrier secret-ridden novels, there is very rarely a sense that problems could be solved if only people were just more honest with one another. Instead, even when we can see that honesty is the best end point, we cannot see the tangled and precipitous route that could lead there without setting off landslides of unwanted consequences. This is a trilogy about just how thoroughly entangled in lies Fitz and those around him have ended up as a result of his actions in the original trilogy. And yet the biggest shock to Fitz is when he realises that he is neither the most secretive nor the most multidimensional player on his stage. We spend the time, inevitably, in Fitz’s head, preoccupied with Fitz’s problems – but around him, others too see their carefully constructed façades imperilled by unexpected circumstances. That, I suppose, is the message of the book: that deceit may seem to best for all concerned, but that every lie gives a hostage to happenstance. And at the same time it’s about the truth of masks, and whether a deceit remains a deceit when it is lived as truth for long enough, and whether there is any truth at all under the layers of presentation and manipulation – or whether there are perhaps too many truths, all incompatible.
Or maybe, as Fitz says, it’s about the cyclical nature of life. As I said in my review of the first volume, this trilogy sees Fitz play a new role, as a parental figure rather than a child. It’s an old role, and we see echoes of Burrich, and Verity, and Chade in Fitz’s own behaviour toward his various sort-of-children – and in the process we also see Fitz’s own behaviour in the original trilogy through new, more cynical eyes, as the new generation acts out his own childish mistakes. At the same time, we see Fitz wrestling that parental role away from older rivals, in a way that causes us to wonder about how the adults of the original trilogy dealt with their own predecessors. Fitz is completely conscious of all this, and at one moments welcomes, and the next fights bitterly against, the repetition of history, the comfortable easing of new actors into old roles. It’s a manifestation in miniature of the Prophet’s predictions about the circular nature of time, a demonstration of what it means to wrench time into a new track – and of how difficult that is, and how painful, and how dangerous. And on a more prosaic level, I have to say it’s a joy to read a fantasy book with adults in, behaving in adult ways, worrying about adult things. So often either we’re only given adolescent protagonists, or else the circumstances (war, cataclysm, etc) force the protagonists to concentrate entirely on their present situation; so it’s wonderful to be allowed inside the head of a middle-aged man worrying about his son’s love life, not knowing when to step in and when to let him go. Normally to get that sort of thing you need to go and read Literature or something. Here we get mid-life angst and (rumours of) dragons – what more could you want?
But the virtues of the book aren’t limited to philosophising and character exposition. It’s also a surprisingly tense and exciting book. I’m reminded of the wonderful film, Twelve Angry Men – in which a bunch of guys arguing with each other in a small room for a few hours makes for thrilling entertainment. There are scenes here that go even further in their complete disdain for conventional action – some of my favourites are the scenes where Fitz is watching the expressions of various characters in a room as they each watch the expressions of the others (and of Fitz). So much can be accomplished with only glances. Of course, it’s not a heart-pounding thrill, but it is gripping. And it’s also emotional. Very emotional, without it being necessarily a tear-jerker (nothing, at least, to compare with what happened in the previous books). When a reader knows a character as well as we know Fitz by now, the author doesn’t have to put him through hell to make us feel. She just shows us what it’s like inside the man’s skin; we feel every contusion.
It isn’t a perfect book, largely because of the second half. Halfway through, I was entirely satisfied, but then things went a little off the rails. In terms of pace, the buildup lost momentum and we were treated to a bumpy half-book of climaxes and anticlimaxes, not really forming a clear emotional arc (let alone a narrative one!) – and worst of all, ending with a slow glide to a sudden stop. I just found it hard to care about the contents of the final two or three chapters, compared to the more interesting things that had been going on before. Talking of which: too many things went wrong for Fitz in too short a time, which exposed us to the most offputting side of the character: his whingeing. A little is good, but too much just gets… irritating not because I’m irritated at the author, but just because I feel Fitz’s chafing against constraints and it chafes at me too. And then too many relationship plot points are resolved too neatly and too easily. And because of this, and because there’s no clear plot, and because the set-up for the next volume has struggled to stand out from all the day-to-day stuff, I’m not left with a great sense of needing to read on. It’s the opposite of a cliffhanger, which is a strange decision for the end of a penultimate book.
Oh, and this is small I know, but it just gnaws at me: Hobb isn’t very good at conveying the passage of time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure, and had to check, whether a day had passed or six months. It ultimately doesn’t matter in this case, but it was a niggling confusion I had.
On the positive side, Hobb continues her thing of being constantly a little mystifying – the mythos never seems entirely worked out. It’s been relegated to little bits around the edges by now, but it’s still there – notably in the one, two, or maybe three different voices Fitz hears when Skilling. One of those voices, I can guess pretty easily… but the other two are mysteries, and seem to push forward the conception of the world. Either that or I’ve just missed something obvious.
Finally: on this re-read, I continue to be struck by the ambiguity of the narration. Oftentimes we read Fitz talking in the past tense about the Fitz of the time of the novel thinking back to the Fitz of the past: it’s clear the Fitz of the past can’t be trusted, and the Fitz of the present makes clear that the Fitz of the time of the novel can’t be trusted either… but should we really trust Fitz-the-narrator? It’s not done in an intrusive, postmodern way – it’s so subliminal I don’t think I really picked up on it the first time I read it – but every level of the narration is imperfect. Fitz himself is imperfect to an extreme: come to think of it, he’s really not that smart (just well-informed, and well-trained, and with a good memory). But that realisation, which Fitz also has, undermines itself: Fitz maybe isn’t all that bright when it comes to judging himself. When he says he is being too harsh on himself… maybe he’s not. Or when he says that he’s learnt… maybe he hasn’t. When he says he was wrong… maybe he wasn’t. Time and again I found myself questioning Fitz’s interpretations of things – not only Fitz-the-character’s interpretations, but Fitz-the-narrator’s as well. In other books, this would result in me getting annoyed with either the character for being an idiot or the author for making their character an idiot… but here there is enough ambiguity, both in what Fitz really believes and in what’s really true, that I felt that this was part of the point of the book. Wilde once said: the old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything. This is a very middle-aged book.
Adrenaline: 3/5. I’d like to score it higher but I can’t. Much of it is a 4, but it slackens in the second half (despite there being more conventional ‘action’ in that half).
Emotion: 4/5. Not a tear-jerker, but a thoroughly emotionally engaging read nonetheless. Few fantasy books put the reader so intimately in the skin of a character as this one does.
Thought: 4/5. Between the elements of mystery and the worrying about what might happen next and the glimpses of different possible longer-term resolutions, and the constant evaluation and re-evaluation of Fitz’s past and present actions and judgements, and a few bits of philosophical and life-experience-y rumination, it’s a pretty intellectually engaging novel too, even if it never actually says anything startlingly original, or engages in any one topic in great intellectual depth.
Beauty: 3/5. As usual for Hobb, it’s polished enough not to be ugly, but she’s not aiming at beauty, I don’t think.
Craft: 4/5. Occasionally heavy-handed, and the prose is nothing remarkable. Plus one or two minor niggles (eg passage of time) and maybe the plot/structure/pacing as a whole could have been shaped a bit more sharply. But in general, a really accomplished piece of writing displaying her characters with acuity and nuance and sophistication, and a book that does well being re-read.
Endearingness: 5/5. So maybe it’s not my perfect book – a thrilling ending and a bit less whining in the second half might have done that – but it’s still a book I love. It’s just a joy to read – for me, anyway. This is the most subjective of my categories, I know – not everyone will love this fairly slow, rambling, ruminating book. But I do. It puts us into the head of an extremely sympathetic (in my view) character, and gives us time to live in there a while while he deals with a range of interesting problems from the intimate to the personal to the political, to potentially even bigger problems than that. It allows the magical and the fantastic to merge comfortably and inseparably into the personal and realistic. It’s just a great book to curl up with. It’s not a coincidence that I finally got around to picking this up to re-read it on the day my cat died – it’s the sort of book to lose yourself in. If you’re me, at least.
Originality: 4/5. It operates within the confines of epic fantasy, and a fairly conventional form of epic fantasy at that. Royals, quests, talk of dragons, vikings, animal companions, prophecies, chosen ones, etc. But within that subgenre, it is completely it’s own thing – it’s original in style and structure and above all in what it cares about. Most epic fantasy doesn’t spend pages musing on the potential hurt feelings of unsympathetic former lovers or worrying about the apprentice fees for dependants, or worrying whether wise old friends are going a bit senile. Most epic fantasy is all about the… well, you know, the fantasy. This is the sort of book that’s determined to remind us that the fantasy only matters because of the reality in its shadow – that motivations are personal, and that consequences will also be personal.
Overall: 6/7. Very Good. When I say that something’s Very Good, I mean it. There are some classic, classic books that I’ve put down as Very Good. This deserves to stand alongside them. It may not have the same sort of impact as a book like A Canticle for Leibowitz or The Stars My Destination, or Dhalgren, but to me it’s just as good (I recognise that this hinges on the fact I love the book; but even if I’d found the book odious personally, the other scores are high enough to make it Good at the very least!). It’s obviously a very different sort of book from those books – it’s 600 pages long, for a start, and a lot of the heavy lifting has been done in the previous four giant books about this character (and three more related volumes). In fact, this is a great argument for the seemingly obscene size of many epic fantasy series: I’ve no doubt that even if she tried Hobb wouldn’t be able to write a short novel as stunning as the ones by Miller and Bester, but because the genre lets her expend so many words on the same characters (and places), she’s now able to do things those authors couldn’t possibly have done in their short novels – the weight of words has sunk us so deeply into the heart of FitzChivalry, in a way that I suspect only epic fantasy or a similarly longwinded genre could ever do (or, of course, the hand of an overwhelming genius – never underestimate genius). Readers who prefer more external, and less internal, action may find this not quite so good as the first volume in the series, but to me it’s the best book of the series so far, and enough to confirm Robin Hobb as one of my favourite authors. In fact, this is probably one of my favourite books ever. [Which doesn’t, of course, mean that it’s the best!]