Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb

Having left it far too long from my initial reading, I didn’t feel I could write a proper review of this. However, for the sake of completeness I have jotted down a few sparse remarks on Goodreads, so, for the first time ever, I’ll copy my review from GR to here rather than vice versa… again, sorry if this isn’t the fully-fleshed out review some might be expecting of me. Perhaps I’ll be able to do that at some point in the future, after a re-read; for now, you’ll have to make do with the bare-bones outline of my thoughts…

 


 

A lot of people don’t like Assassin’s Fate. A lot of people hate it. A lot of people say they’ll never read another Robin Hobb novel ever again.

I sympathise. I felt exactly the same thing… way back when I read Fool’s Fate for the first time. Quite a few people think the same when they read Assassin’s Quest, for that matter. This is all not just a coincidence. Hobb’s trilogies don’t end where the conventions of the genre tell us they should end. They turn into different stories, ones that we don’t want to hear.

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TOUGH TRAVELLING – True Love

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Love has often not been Fantasy’s strong suite – unsurprisingly, perhaps, for a genre for so long primarily marketed at geeky teenage boys. As among many geeky teenage boys, there was sort of an apprehension that love was incredibly important and solved all your problems, but not really too much idea of what exactly it entailed. The love of Aragorn and Arwen, for instance, or of Rosie and Sam, was ideal for a fantasy novel: signposted from the beginning so as not to be a cause of any anxiety or confusion, then conveniently absent while all the exciting stuff was going on so as not to get in the way, and finally dealt with once and for all with a marriage at the end of the book, because as we all know real life ends with marriage…

…but along the way, the genre has produced the odd interesting pairing. Some truly moving; others, just truly disturbing. Here, in accordance with this ‘Tough Travelling’ meme that I keep meaning to participate in but never quite get around to, are a few that I can think of.

All are variants on the idea of ‘true love’ as presented in Fantasy; some may be more loving, or more true, than others. The meme calls for five… I ended up with 13. Well, 14, technically. But then I do way fewer than 1 in 3 of these, so I reckon I’m still in deficit…

Warning: beyond this point lie moderate spoilers for the works of Tolkien, Feist, Wurts, Weiss, Hickman, Eddings, Abrams, McCaffrey, Abrams, Hobb, Jordan, Green, Donaldson, Pratchett, Gentle, and Nyx Smith…

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Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

If anyone wants to know my thoughts on Hobb’s earlier novels, look over here.

Some people will read Fool’s Assassin and say: but there was no plot! 4/5ths of the book was pointless filler! We didn’t get to the real story until the end!

That makes sense, although I’m not sure how those readers made it through all the previous installments of Robin Hobb’s cycle, since she’s never exactly been known for all-out high-octane action novels.

But my reaction was in any case exactly the opposite: 4/5ths of the book was maybe my favourite book of all time, and then it all got shunted aside because the author or her publishers thought this new trilogy needed to prove it was still epic fantasy.

It’s hard to say too much about the plot. My principle is not only to try not to spoil the books I review, but also not to spoil previous installments in the series more than necessary. Since this is now Book 14 in the cycle construed broadly, and Book 7 in terms purely of the history of FitzChivalry Farseer, that’s a lot of plot to avoid mentioning! But I think it’s safe to say that the beginning of this trilogy – like the beginning of Tawny Man – finds our favourite assassin a little out of the loop, more concerned with domestic issues surrounding his country home than with grand affairs of court or with the fate of the world.

And I’m OK with that. Gosh darnit, I’ve read through six hefty tomes of Fitz constantly being distracted from the demands of his private life by the exigencies of world-saving, and now to be honest I’d be quite happy just reading three books of the man sitting around, hanging out, having tea with people, deciding which clothes to buy, whatever.

Of course, Robinh Hobb is not a bad plotter. She’s at worst an OK plotter, and at times an excellent one (much of The Liveship Traders, for instance, felt meticulously devised). But in all her work, it’s the characters who have interested me – the personal drama, and above all the relationship drama. The plot has been there to force the characters into action, to create that drama. But now, to be honest, I rather felt as though this time the plot was getting in the way of the drama: there’s more than enough real excitement in Fitz’s life now to do without the big picture for a bit. I’m not normally somebody who likes soap operas, but after six volumes, I think we all deserve a little bit of guilty pleasure. I know that Fitz sure as hell does…

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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.

 

 

The Golden Fool, by Robin Hobb

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.

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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?

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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.

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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!]