Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

And here we are now, at the end of the tale of the Fitz and the Fool.

[Except we’re not. Because despite all the protestations to the contrary over the last ten years, Fool’s Fate is not the end, and the next installment, Fool’s Assassin, is out next year. Which is to me a source of both fear and joy. But anyway, let’s pretend for now that this is the end…]

Fool’s Fate is a very strange book. I think I said in my review of the previous book, The Golden Fool, that the climax(es) of that book occured halfway through the book, leaving the book itself with surprisingly little ending; well, I think now that the second half of The Golden Fool was the beginning of a new book, and the first half of Fool’s Fate is the logical second half of that book. Because to say that the climax of Fool’s Fate is halfway through the novel is an understatement. Halfway through the novel we get a series of scenes that are effectively the climax to the first half of the book and the second half of the last, and the climax to the trilogy as a whole, and the climax to all nine Realm of Elderlings books. This is the big bang. And then we get…

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…epilogue. It’s not called an epilogue, but it’s the same material that other authors would have in an epilogue. Now, some authors have their epilogues be one page long. Some have an entire chapter, ten pages of epilogue. Some have massive, sprawling epilogues dealing with every possible loose end, a hundred pages long!

…and then there’s the epilogue to Fool’s Fate, which at somewhere between 250 and 300 pages depending on where exactly you consider the climax, is longer than most novels outside the fantasy genre.

It doesn’t feel entirely fair to go on about this structural peculiarity right from the gun. It’s a huge and complicated novel with a lot that could be said about it. But let’s be honest, the pacing and the structure are the azhdarchid in the room (sorry, just been reading about pterosaurs).

On the positive side, the structure gives us the benefit of surprise. Even going in to this knowing how it worked, I was fooled again – the slow, deliberate pace that feels as though it will lift us all the way to the final pages suddenly bursts into chaos and confusion at a surprisingly early point, creating a pretty thrilling climax.

And the epilogue isn’t without worth either. Far from it. This is a character-centred novel, and Hobb uses the long epilogue section both to develop character in response to the earlier events and to show us how characters have changed. It also gives us a lot of the material that has been promised to us throughout the series but perpetually delayed, and without which the book would feel like something of a con. And it’s surprisingly gripping, too. Authors who feel they can’t excite their audiences without fights and shocks and thrills would do well to read this. Hobb hasn’t forgotten that the heart of drama is relationship, and this may be 250 pages of talking about emotions and developing relationships, but if anything it’s more compelling than the action scenes were.

But it’s just too long. Yes, I was gripped, but there comes a point, without anything happening or any prospect of anything happening in future, where the reader moves from “I can’t put this down until I find out what happens next” to a less satisfying “I can’t put this down until the damn thing finally ends!” It’s not the writing, it’s not the content, it’s the structure – people just aren’t built to take in the scenary when they’re gliding to a stop on a rollercoaster.

It’s why so many people don’t like the final chapters of The Lord of the Rings, however necessary people (myself included) insist they are. And this is like The Lord of the Rings, if instead of coming home to the Shire and finding things terribly wrong and in need of fighting, the hobbits instead came home and went around meditating on life and death and having long, awkward conversations with all the hobbits who had stayed behind. Twice. Because there is a sting in the tail here – the main result of which is that the hero needs to go around having all those conversations a second time as a result of what happens.

It isn’t ‘boring’ exactly, but it’s… not right.

And then there’s the end.

I have only thrown one book in my life. This wasn’t it. But I very nearly did throw this one right across the room. What held me back was probably less the lack of rage, and less the veneration of books, and more the concern that since this was an 800-page hardback, the wall might not be able to survive the encounter.

The second time I read this series, I loved the end to bits.

So this time, the third time? I can see both sides.

The main reason I hated the ending the first time (aside from the common Hobb flaw of an overly pat and neat conclusion) was, in hindsight, the way it completely tore up all my memories of the end of the Farseer Trilogy (which was rushed and deeply flawed, but also incredibly poignant). More than that, the ending of this novel seemed to negate everything that had gone before. I felt it was a betrayal not only of the first trilogy but of the second, a horrible, terrible, unnecessary, probably money-driven betrayal. Like when the studios ripped up The Magnificent Ambersons and added a happy ending instead. That sort of atrocity.

On a second and third re-reading, however, I’ve come to see that the ending wasn’t a sudden betrayal at all, but an inevitability. The whole of Tawny Man was headed toward that ending. I just hadn’t noticed. That’s because to a large extent not only the ending but the entire trilogy are largely positioned as a re-analysis of the assumptions of the first trilogy. Those of us, myself included, who bought into both the decisions of Fitz in the first trilogy and the assessements of Fitz-the-narrator in that trilogy (it’s important to remember that although the narrator in the first trilogy is writing long after the events, he’s still writing before the events of Tawny Man, with the narrator of Tawny Man living at some time even later) have had a bumpy ride at times as old sureties have been re-assessed. In that light, the ending is simply the final nail in the coffin of an old assumption. That’s why I loved it the second time around, precisely because it challenged me (in particular, many of the things that younger Fitz thought of as being mature and adult are now reassessed as childish and naive, and sometimes vice versa).

But on a third reading: I can appreciate what Hobb is trying to do, but I don’t feel she does it in the correct way. The ending is far too neat – not just because neatness is often a flaw in an ending, but specifically because neatness in a controversial ending is a form of arrogance: it’s a high-handed declaration that not only is the author right and the reader wrong, but there isn’t even any room for doubt or complications. That’s it, case closed, all done.

Specifically, and trying to avoid spoilers here, I think the novel should have ended Fitz’s story, as it were, one step earlier – leaving the ending that we got as a possibility, a clearly-announced potential future development, but not as a fait accompli. This would have largely gotten across Hobb’s point while not so greatly alienating some readers, and leaving more of a sense of there being some unfinished business. And doing this would have allowed Hobb to instead give us more time focusing on the most tantalising relationship in the trilogy, the one that really ought to be dealt with more fully before we move on to the ending we were given.

As a result, I end up suspecting that my opinion of this may change considerably, in either direction, next year, when we pick up the story again. To me, it comes down to this: will the Fitz we see next admit that he was wrong here, will he deny that he was wrong in the face of all the evidence, or will the events of this trilogy be left as they are while Fitz moves on to new adventures? I’m not necessarily hoping that Fitz will repudiate all his character growth and changes in opinion and revert to how he was at the start of the trilogy, not at all – but I would really like to see some sign that this new Fitz isn’t right about everything either, that perhaps he only replaced one over-simplistic point of view with another. In short, I want the new books to re-evaluate the events and beliefs of Tawny Man in the same way that Tawny Man re-evaluated Farseer. And if that happens, my problems with the ending of Tawny Man will dwindle to a very small residue.

[Some people find the ending of the book not only thematically controversial and overly simplistic, but also highly implausible. I can certainly see their argument there – I agreed with them on my first read. But after some consideration I don’t think this is fair. This argument has largely bought in too far to Fitz’s earlier assumptions – some things he considers implausible, tells us to be implausible, are perhaps more likely all along than Fitz thought. I think if we consider the situation from the point of view of characters other than Fitz, there is nothing impermissably implausible here.]

[[And yes, I am aware that sometimes in trying to avoid spoilers yet still trying to talk about things, I probably end up being more teasing and frustrating and annoying than if I’d just given names and dates upfront. Sorry about that. Fortunately, there’s a cure – go back to the beginning of the Realm of Elderlings books and read through to the end, and my vague gesturing will have been completely forgotten by the time you get to the relevant chapters!]]

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Can I talk about the rest of the book now?

Well, OK, but again I have to start with a complaint. Namely, one particular climactic chapter where (some of) the Good Guys meet (some of) the Bad Guys, and learn (some of) their Evil Plans.

There is much twirling of moustaches and evil cackling.

It’s godawfully terrible.

Doubly terrible, frankly, for how much nuance and sophistication has gone into all the rest of the characterisation in this book. And then that whole approach gets thrown out of the window for a little moment, in favour of cliché and hamfistedness.

Why? How can such a good writer go so wrong? Well, I think the roots of the problem are a deeper issue Hobb has with good and evil. Hobb’s novels are always filled with moral complexity and ambiguity, that’s what gives a lot of the emotion and vividness to her characters and the details of events; yet her epic plots get their compelling drive from moral clarity. In order to make us care about the big stuff – and to make us agree that sometimes the big stuff has to overrule all that little stuff that we’re so invested in – she needs the big stuff to ultimately come down to good and evil. And in order to bring clarity to complexity, she has to cut through the knot. In Farseer, this is done firstly by making the Red Ship Raiders be (almost) entirely a faceless and motiveless external force of destruction (which she gets away with by having them be so peripheral to most of the events) and by having Regal come dangerously close to being a moustache-twirling villain (which she gets away with in my opinion (some feel she doesn’t) through the nuances of characterisation she’s able to give him over the course of three novels). In Liveships, this is done less succesfully and more obviously by using ‘slavery’ (poorly defined and explained, with no real examination of its social or economic nature) as such an unambiguous Big Bad that everything and everyone else can ultimately be defined through their relation to it, giving the series a clear moral compass (anything that reduces slavery is good, anything that increases it is bad). But in Tawny Man, Hobb ‘s vision is her most challenging yet, with the future desired by the ‘good guys’ actually looking really, seriously unappealling. To her credit, Hobb recognises this explicitly, with many characters expressing doubts and second thoughts… so how can she get her readers to accept unconditionally that this is the ‘good’ outcome and its opposite is ‘bad’?

By making the guys who want the opposite outcome incomparably evil, of course. Flawlessly evil. Evil, as in embodying every possible complaint from risqué clothing decisions through to totalitarian fascism, stopping off at torture and an unconscionable lack of respect for fine art works along the way. The Bad Guys are designed to push every possible button the reader might have, to make it impossible to support them. And they have to do all of this in, basically, one chapter.

It’s stupid.

To explain exactly how stupid it is, I’ll use an analogy. You write a story about a political activist who is in favour of imposing crushing import tariffs on foreign manufacturers. In the story, your hero gets into a debate with a rival political activist, who explains exactly why import tariffs would make the domestic consumer worse of, and would lead to inflation while reducing domestic industrial competitiveness and making it harder to export, let alone the problems that would occur if other countries retaliated with tariffs of your own. Your hero and his friends acknowledge that the anti-protectionist has a good argument, but then point out that the anti-protectionist is an antisemitic neonazi who eats babies and rapes chickens and that he’s controlling the minds of the populace with a magic corkscrew and if something isn’t done to stop him there’ll be human sacrifices to the elder lords being offered up in every village hall within the year, so obviously imposing a 4% tariff on manufactured goods entering the company, phased in over a three-year period, is the only possible way forward.

[Hobb’s thing is environmentalism, and the problems of noxious externalities in a market with insufficient regulation of industry, rather than protectionism, and is expressed in more spiritual and less economic terms, but you get the idea]

Frankly, it feels like she’s taken a sledgehammer to the ribcage of her own series.

But then there’s the other side of the book.

Because, that chapter and some dubious pacing decisions aside, this is actually a really well-written book. It’s a testament to Hobb’s skill as a writer that even when the big picture is at best provocative and at worst ridiculous, there is still plenty of excitement at groun level. The big plot that began in the previous volume and concludes halfway through this one sounded at first like something both straightforward and over-familiar, but things are rarely either with Hobb, and the plot is filled with suspense, mystery, twists, readjustments of emphasis, relationship drama, character development and growth, and glaciers. Even as someone who had read it twice before, I still found it fresh, surprising, moving, and gripping.

And then there’s the second half of the book. Yes, the pacing is questionable, and some of the decisions the author makes are questionable and will be controversial, but as I said above this is still a compelling read. This is a character we’ve lived with for nine volumes showing growth and change, trying to find a reasonably happy ending for himself, and it’s impossible not to empathise with him (let’s face it, if you don’t love Fitz you won’t have made it this far in the first place). Assumptions are questioned, consequences are explored, loose ends are tied up neatly, and a few little threads are left tantalisingly open.

In terms of the writing, and most of the content, this book is just as good as the previous installment, which I said in my review was possibly my favourite novel ever; and in some ways this one is even better, thanks to more stuff actually happening.

So in conclusion, this is a seriously good book let down in just a couple of ways, and that’s not enough to stop it being a wonderful read. It’s a pity that this review focuses so much on the negative, even more so than usual, because I don’t think that really expresses my views: yes, I was intensely frustrated with the book, but in an affectionate, even loving way. Unfortunately, flaws are so much easier to pinpoint than successes, particularly when an author’s been getting the same things right for nine books in a row. You run out of ways to praise the strength of her characterisation, the depth and complexity of the questions her characters force the reader to consider, the extent to which her books can be re-read with fresh eyes and from new angles.

So, despite all the negative things I’ve said here, I can’t wait for next installment.

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Scores:

Adrenaline: 4/5. The exciting bits are exciting, and the non-exciting bits are… still quite exciting. But there’s a lot of the merely ‘quite exciting’ bits, too much to get top marks here.

Emotion: 4/5. Well obviously. You don’t live in someone’s head for this long and not get emotional at the climax of their story!

Thought: 4/5. Considerably more provocative than the usual fantasy novel, both in terms of the big picture and in terms of the personal level. Not to mention a suspenseful plot with plenty of mysteries along the way, and the author also leaves the door open to interpret a lot of character issues in multiple ways.

Beauty: 3/5. As always, Hobb’s prose is solid and effective and occasionally pretty, but isn’t going to win awards for its beauty.

Craft: 3/5. Gets some things very right. Gets other things very wrong. I’d have hoped she’d have been more able to do climaxes and conclusions by now.

Endearingness: 4/5. Mostly loved it, but loses a mark for its missteps, and for some doubts I still have about the ending.

Originality: 4/5. Can’t give it top marks because technically a lot of things here are drawn from mainstays of the genre. But the execution is entirely original, both in its original details and in its character-driven approach.

Overall: 6/7. Very Good. It certainly had some flaws, and I don’t think it was as good as the previous volume – maybe better in its heights, but with more problems too. But it’s still a very good book, and a perfectly adequate conclusion to a very good trilogy. If she’d managed to deal with the central conflict more adroitly, and had tightened up the long, lingering anticlimax of an ending (not lost it entirely, but tightened it up, and maybe loosened its end), it might even have been brilliant.

 

 

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7 thoughts on “Fool’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

  1. T. says:

    YES YES YES! I am not the only one who has noticed it then!

    SPOILERS AHEAD. REALLY, YOU HAVEN’T READ, DON’T DO ON!









    I am with you. I am 100% with you. Beloved is definitively the bad guy of the series. But when I pointed out how horrendously dystopian RoE is, how much human-bashing there is in the books, I was either ignored or insulted.
    Nobody seems to see the point, that inserting a race essentially to prey over human beings because otherwise they may “tame all Nature” is a rough equivalent of putting wasp in a tomato field to control the caterpillar population*, the answer was “but Beloved is good and the Pale Woman is eviiiil!” So what?
    Nazists were evil. They however made some of the best economic decisions in history, taking a country long since collapsed and turned it on its head in a superpower. You can also be a mass-muder and made some very good science.
    Nature sucks. The only thing Nature entitles you is to die, and to TRY to stay alive as long as possible. Nature is earthquakes, tornadoes and pestilences. I am all in favour of taming nature. Taming nature is what being human is all about.
    I have known religious people getting angry at Pullman or Eragon atheistic views in their books, and I have heard atheist being annoyed at Lewis’ overly insertion of Christian’s ideologies in the first Narnia’s books. I do not have to accept the worldview of the author, nor I have to pretend it is not what it is: a partisan, sectarian and not universal way to see the World.

    About the ending: I am angry that Fitz throws away all the growth he had done since the beginning of Fool’s Errand in the moment Molly accepts to bed him. He doesn’t study the Wit more. He doesn’t go and search for his mother (as he should have done). He doesn’t… He doesn’t do anything. Why he doesn’t do it? Because Molly wouldn’t accept it, of course. Love doesn’t ask the loved one to be truncated, somebody said. Molly has wielded an axe all over Fitz, who ends up burying himself in Whitywood pretending to be happy with half of his boyhood dream (the other half was “to be rid of the Farseer’s problems” and he fulfilled it by being a recluse for 15 years).
    And this is not a ending I, personally, can accept. Not incidentally, Fitz describes himself as “content”, which is the same as he claimed to be in his godforsaken cottage in the beginning of Fool’s Errand. I personally think there is a nice comparison with Althea’s growth, we could talk about it if you wish 😀

    And I am with you on the hopes and dreads for the next book. I personally can’t see it going well. I think it will be horrid. But I hope to read the reunion of Fool and Fitz 🙂 That is all.
    I have my headcanon and I am writing it down in spite of Robin Hobb whining against fanfictions 🙂

    *The teeny tiny difference is, of course, that humans are not caterpillar. You can’t reason with caterpillars, you can reason with humans.

  2. On good and evil: I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Beloved IS the bad guy. For one thing, he seems so right the rest of the time that, like Fitz, we take him on trust on this issue. And obviously the Woman is evil. (EEEEEEEEEEEEEEVIL, to be precise). And while Beloved’s ambitions are certainly counterintuitive, I can see how there may be a glimmer of truth to them, how maybe the world might be better if humans couldn’t do everything they wanted, if they had to negotiate for some things. And even if I don’t agree, I do like books that have the guts to challenge me.
    The problem is, Hobb (through Beloved) doesn’t actually make that case. There’s almost no discussion of the matter on its merits. We’re expected to side with Beloved simply because we like him, and because we don’t like the Woman, and maybe to some extent because we’re expected to agree with any form of environmentalism because environmentalism is always good.
    But that’s not good enough. Especially because this isn’t just humans having to share the world, this is humans being EATEN. Sure, Beloved’s world isn’t totalitarian, but it’s basically colonial, if the colonisers were cannibals: sure, do your own thing, govern yourselves, but make sure you always obey us, don’t inconvenience us, provide servants for us, and supply us with quotas of raw materials (in this case primarily cattle) or else we’ll EAT YOU. And destroy your puny settlements with aerial chemical bombardments.
    Hobb’s utopia is basically european colonialism with environmentally-friendly dragons instead of environmentally-destructive white people. And you know, I like to keep an open mind, I can see there are reasons why people might think that colonialism was a good thing in some case, and if Hobb wants to make that argument I’ll listen. I may not agree, but I’ll listen. But instead Hobb just sort of expects us not to find this problematic. Which is it. Especially when her colonialism sometimes sounds a lot less like British India and a lot more like the Congo Free State!

    On the ending: I’m not fully with you there, either. We don’t know for sure that Fitz never investigated the Wit further – indeed, I strongly suspect he did. For one thing, his influence in government at a time when relations with the Wit are critical, the fact he’s known to and almost revered by the Wit Coterie, would seem to suggest that he would want to investigate it more even if only for political reasons (and Molly by now knows what he is, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem). For another, we know that he ends up writing ‘Badgerlock’s Old Blood Tales’ or whatever it’s called, and while he could have done it while a recluse in his cottage that seems unlikely, given how little he knew of the Wit at the time. He probably never tries to find his mother, but then I don’t see why he would, really.

    He certainly doesn’t throw away character growth – the character growth is largely to get him to the point where he can allow himself to have a happy family – both in letting himself accept that it’s possible, and then daring to try to attain it. I suspect he’s still being naive, that maybe it’ll turn out that things weren’t so easy after all, but I don’t think that that means he hasn’t grown as a person to get to that stage.

    Not sure I see the parallels with Althea?

  3. […] You may also want to read this review, which is both well-written and entertaining, and covers aspects of the trilogy that I haven’t gone into. But then again, you might as well just skip it and read the books. […]

  4. […] THE TAWNY MAN: Fool’s Errand The Golden Fool Fool’s Fate […]

  5. Simon says:

    This would have been better as an e-mail, but I couldn’t find a way to send one. Anyway I mostly wanted to say how happy I am to have found your site. Actually it was the (frankly amazing) Lord Foul’s Bane review that got me here – Donaldson being my second favourite author easily – and then I noticed you had reviewed almost all the Hobb books, and I’ve now spent my morning going through them. No prizes for guessing my favourite author.

    With each Hobb review I find myself repeatedly saying, yes!, yes!, yes!, like I’ve found some sort of kindred spirit (and just as often saying: that’s a bloody good point I never thought of); and I thought to post this here because there was a particularly strong reaction of that type as I read about your feelings about the ending to Fool’s Fate at each re-reread, which is basically identical to my own.

    Over the years – I read Assassin’s Apprentice just a couple of years after it came out and was immediately addicted from then on – I’ve recommended these books to anyone I could, friends, parents, teachers, random people in bookshops (this is sadly true) etc, and often been rewarded by these people ending up just as love-struck as I was and ploughing through the lot. They are luckier than I was in that there are 14 to read, and they aren’t stuck waiting a year or more for each one, straight away. But much of the reason I do this is that I’m craving the experience of being able to discuss something I feel so strongly about with other people, even if it’s just at a sort of “I know, right!?” level. And while this blog might not exactly constitute a discussion, I’ve had a fantastic time reading through everything and finding someone clarifying a lot of my own thoughts by expressing them in a far more considered and eloquent way than I could, and challenging others. (If anything that goes doubly for the LFB review and I’d be fascinated to read what you might have to say about the subsequent volumes if you get round to them.) In the light of Fool’s Assassin coming out I did a reread of all the books from the start – not the first time I’ve done this, and indeed Hobb’s are easily the most re-read of all the books I own – so I’ve been thinking freshly/differently about all sorts therein and making connections that never occurred before. These pages of yours have given me lots more food for thought.

    I could ramble on at painful length in this vein, but for the sanity of all involved, I won’t. So, thank you, I guess!

  6. Thank you so much for your comment! And please, do feel free to comment on my posts, I wish more people did.
    I’m aware my thoughts aren’t interesting or likeable to most people – I witter on far too long, and always seem to have an unpopular view on everything. One of the things that keeps me sharing what I write, here and elsewhere, is that every so often somebody like you REALLY likes something I say, and that’s something I think is more rewarding than a crowd of nodding mildly-supportive people. So thank you so much for your compliment.

    I can’t say Donaldson is one of my favourite writers (at least, not any more, if he ever was which he probably wasn’t), but he is an interesting one; and Hobb certainly IS one of my favourites, probably (as of last month at least) my favourite living author (though probably not the best).

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