“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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
*[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…]