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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Ten Authors Who Would Once Have Been In My Top Ten

As I explained earlier today a few days ago, I just can’t, honestly, make a list of my ten favourite authors. I can make it to three, maybe four, and that’s it. All the other contenders are either people I loved long ago but don’t love anymore, or people I might love in the future but haven’t read enough of yet.

But that got me thinking. If I can’t list my current top ten… how about a historical top ten? In a way, that seems more interesting, since that gives a story about myself, an actual arc. The authors can become more meaningful through a biographical context.

Or maybe I just like talking about myself.

Either way, that’s what I’m doing. Ten authors who would, in roughly chronological order, once have been among my favourite authors at a given time in my life. Except that this is me, and I’m terrible with respecting rules, so actually this is sixteen authors who were once among my favourites. I can’t promise that they would necessarily all have ever been my ‘#1’ author, but they would all have been up there. Here we go…

(oh, and this is just fiction, and just prose. No poetry, plays, non-fiction, or writing for TV or film)

GB

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien was the first author I read, and the one who set the foundation for everything else in my literary life, and indeed, at least symbolically, the rest of my life too, for good and ill. ‘Favourite’ doesn’t really do it justice. My first book – the first adult book I read for myself – was The Lord of the Rings, and I went on to re-read it at least once a year into my middle teens. I loved The Hobbit too, and later on The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. I have two collections of his poetry. A book I found in Switzerland about his elven languages started me on my hobby of language-creation. (illustration: John Howe’s ‘The Fall of Gondolin’)

  1. Enid Blyton

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I didn’t only ever read Fantasy. And just because I started with Tolkien, that doesn’t mean I skipped childhood entirely. I read, or listened to, or was read, a whole bunch of kid’s books too. Lots of Roald Dahl. And I loved both the E. Nesbitt novels I read. But the one that stands out for me from my earliest years was Enid Blyton. I never read the Famous Five books (although I once had a book/game version of one of them – like a super-CYOA book, with dice and cards and stuff); I resisted attempts to ween me onto the Secret Seven. No, I was, as in all ways, a child who preferred the more recondite alternatives. So I adored her eight ‘Adventure’ novels, about two girls and two boys stranded, having to fend for themselves, in a series of exciting and intimidating locations, generally defeating the sinister plots of some evil adult criminals. My favourite of all was The Valley of Adventure, which seemed like a paradise (despite the whole ‘orHorsephans stranded in war zone hunted by psychotic thieves’ angle). (illustration: no idea)

  1. C. S. Lewis

Narnia. It never seemed as important and deep as Tolkien, but it was still captivating. My favourite was The Horse and His Boy, which is set almost entirely in Exotic Foreign Parts, and doesn’t mess about with any of this ‘real people from England’ business!  (illustration: Stephen Lavis’ cover for ‘The Horse and His Boy’)

  1. David Eddings

eddings_magicians_gambit_2009The backbone of my early Fantasy reading, in larger part because of his productivity. I read all five Belgariad novels (so often my parents added extra plastic binding to protect them), and then all five Mallorean novels, and then the Elenium trilogy (which took me about three days), and then the Tamuli, which took longer only because it was the first series I was actually reading while the books were still coming out one by one, an exhilerating thing. I got the last two in that strange hardback-size-but-paper-backs-and-prone-to-fall-apart format they had back then. Finally, I got his Belgareth and Polgara as hardbacks. (illustration: Geoff Taylor’s painting for the cover of ‘Magician’s Gambit’)

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  1. Arthur Ransome

When I was young, I wasn’t just a geek – I was also a nerd. I spent more time reading the Ravenloft fansites or intently studying the complete unified timeline of Abeir-Toril than I did actually reading the books. But in the days before the internet, nerdery was difficult. Perhaps one of the earliest demonstrations of mine was the case of Arthur Ransome. I liked Ransome’s books – they were like a more grown-up Blyton – and I read three or four of them. But for some reason I decided I was going to collect him. He’s the only author I’ve ever collected, though I probably will collect others in my life. But Ransome was the first – and every week I’d check the second-hand bookshops (there were multiple ones nearby in those queer old pre-internet days) (NB the internet did exist, it just didn’t feature much… at this point, its main use was for downloading updates to Encarta. I can still remember the sound-effects for opening pages in Encarta, you know. And Encarta World Atlas! Dear gods, that astonished us. Truly astonished) for any new copies to buy. (illustration: no idea)hop_fs6_surf

  1. Oscar Wilde

Inherited from my sister. As you may have noticed, my early favourites weren’t exactly famous for their prose style, with the arguable exception of Tolkien. Or, indeed, for their humour. Wilde was suave, polished, and savagely witty. His plays tore apart adult society, while The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis and the fairy tales had an acheing melancholy about them that appealed to my budding emo side. [I wasn’t emo, because it didn’t exist then, and because I wasn’t into pop culture. But I did listen to Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead on an endless loop in a darkened room and write terrible, melancholy gothic poetry heavily influenced by Wilde] If you ever find me prone to self-pitying martyrdom, blame (amongst other bad influences) Oscar Wilde. (illustration: Jessie King’s “White as the surf it was and like a flower it tossed on the waves”, from her illustrations for ‘House of Pomegranates’)

  1. David Gemmell

BKTG04137I got Legend from the school library in the last few years of primary school. Well, from the bookshelf of my classroom, anyway. I think the teacher may be to blame – he was a fantasy fan. I used to lend him books to read. Anyway, I qas quickly hooked by Gemmell, whose proto-grimdark violent brutality and thinly-veiled sexuality was exciting for a pre-teen boy. I read at least eight of his Drenai novels (there are diminishing returns!), as well as his post-apocalyptic semi-magical Jerusalem Man Western trilogy, and his The Knights of Dark Reknown. I might not love him the same way now, but I am surprised by how often he seems to be passed over in discussions of the genre – apparently, though, he was much less popular in America than here. (illustration: Mark Harrison’s cover for ‘Wolf in Shadow’)

 

  1. Isaac AsimovIsaac_Asimov_on_Throne

Asimov may seem like an adult writer – glasses, sideburns, sociological ramifications of technological advances, etc – but he’s actually an ideal writer for kids. Asimov is an ideas man, and kids are all about ideas. Execution, that’s something that adults care about, once they’ve seen all the ideas, but kids want something enthralling, stimulating, challenging. And Asimov was those things. Asimov talks a lot about the nature of humanity, about justice and fairness and good governance, about power in all its forms. And he also talks about aliens and robots and spaceships and hive minds and robots disguised as hive minds disguised as sexy alien women, and civilisations who collapse because they’ve never before seen the night. And Asimov doesn’t speak down to you. Many of his stories have a strong ‘puzzle’ element, the reader invited to work things out for themselves. Asimov expected his audience to have the souls of children and the minds of adults, and that’s a powerful premise for a child. (illustration: Rowena Morrill’s portrait of the great man himself)

  1. Terry Pratchett

the-colour-of-magic-1Well, I guess I’ve written a fair amount before about Pratchett. He was one of my first writers, but I guess he wasn’t really central until near the end of primary school, by which time he was probably my number 1 favourite. From Feet of Clay on, I got all his Discworld books (minus those marketed for younger readers, because I was a snob) in hardback as they came out – all the way up to Making Money. The increasing time between installments, combined with their diminishing quality, made me question him later on, until my re-read project rekindled my love for this great author.reaperman-1

Another biographical point: Terry Pratchett made me give up writing. Not for ever, of course. But at some point I “realised” that I couldn’t write the books I wanted to write because Terry Pratchett had already written them. Now you might find this arrogant – assuming that I could have written these books! – and it is, but it’s also symptomatic of Pratchett. I remember Queen Victoria’s comparison of her two great Prime Ministers (I paraphrase): “After talking with Mr Gladstone, I became convinced that he was the most intelligent man in England. But when I talked with Mr Disraeli, I soon became convinced that I was the most intelligent woman in England.” Pratchett at his best is a literary Disraeli (no offence to the real literary Disraeli, who was of course Disraeli himself…) – he makes his readers feel so smart that they could sure have written these books themselves. After all, it all seems so easy! (illustrations: Josh Kirby’s iconic cover for ‘The Colour of Magic’ , and Joe McClaren’s cover for ‘Reaper Man’)

 

  1. Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman

dl-charactersSometime late in primary school, someone gave me a box of D&D novels. By early in secondary school, I was making some sense of them. Dragonlance was my ‘home’ setting, as it were, and Dragonlance, in its sprawling, slapdash-continuity way, was built around a series of seven novels by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I don’t imagine they were great novels, but boy were they great stories, perhaps the apotheosis of the epic fantasy story, and they displayed their world to the full. Later, I found their (mostly) unrelated (or is it?) Deathgate Cycle, a fine and memorable fantasy in its own right. (illustration: Larry Elmore’s cover for the Collector’s Edition of the Dragonlance Chronicles)

 

  1. Anne McCaffrey

The ubiquity of its foundational rape fantasies and the disturbing attitudes toward gay men aside, there’s something comfortable and asiandragonsdawnrelaxing about the Pern novels. Yes, true, threads of an inimical space fungus fall from the sky and occasionally digests people whole within seconds in an excruciating rain of death, or sometimes merely leave people horribly mutilated and traumatised for life, but apart from that it’s a very safe sort of place, very cosy. People laugh a lot, have unexciting teenage romances (which sometimes even do not necessarily involve fetishised non-consent, except in relatively minor ways… well, using ‘relatively minor’ in a relatively and perhaps unpleasantly charitable DRGNDRMSVN1982way, at least), and have deep and meaningful relationships with their pets (who then essentially compel them into proxy rape via mind control). Lots of loners and marginalised people show the crowds their worth, sometimes by raping them, but it’s all OK because everyone likes each other in the end (except for the people who have to be murdered for the good of the many). It’s a great fantasy world for kids. Sure, it always felt like something written primarily for an audience of teenage girls – the dragons are essentially big glittery mind-rapey ponies – but for a generally insecure boy I was surprisingly unconcerned about that, perhaps because nobody else I knew actually knew what the books were about. Anyway, dragons and romance aside, I loved the way McCaffrey made music central to her culture, and actually wrote about it in a way that only seemed half nonsensical. Masterharper of Pern is the closest thing I know to a biography of a classical composer that also has dragons (and political skullduggery) in it (i.e. the perfect book). (illustrations: Steve Weston’s wonderful dragons for ‘Dragonsdawn’ and ‘Dragondrums’)

  1. Raymond E. Feist

000224148X.02.LZZZZZZZI was introduced by a friend in early secondary school; for some reason, I began with the Serpentwar books, which are indeed the best and most interesting (with the exception of the co-written Empire trilogy). I guess this felt like a more grownup, down-to-earth, graphically violent realistic version of Eddings or of D&D. It was perhaps more believable, less silly, than a lot of those books, and yet fundamentally it was all structured as a jolly good yarn, easy to read and enjoy. I read forward and back from Serpentwar, and sideways into Empire, although I never read on beyond the dreadful computer game adaptations. (illustration: Geoff Taylor again, his cover for ‘Rise of a Merchant Prince’)

 

  1. Elaine Cunningham

0786915617.01.LZZZZZZZA slightly odd one here, because at the time I probably would never have named Cunningham as a favourite author. And yet she’s one of the authors I’ve read the most by. Her Arilyn/Danilo semi-romantic fantasy adventure series was my favourite part of the Forgotten Realms setting, and I followed her over as well to her d365024128a095b511837010.Ldrow novels (an unsuccesful attempt to combine the flavours of her Harper novels with Salvatore’s drow novels), and the beginning of her Halrua series (I should finish that some day!). The books were very light, but they had violence and romance and a kickass tomboy elf princess, so I read them avidly. Despite my apparent grouchiness and my low level of patience with terrible YA romance plots, I actually have a secret soft spot for a good romance, and Arilyn/Danilo clearly worked for me as a kid – serious and deadly girl, flippant and somewhat girly boy, interracial romance with a hint of the forbidden and various Terrible Obstacles Imposed By A Cruel Fate, etc etc. (illustrations: John Foster’s cover for ‘The Magehound’; Kelly Freas’ cover for ‘The Radiant Dragon’. I’ve never actually read ‘The Radiant Dragon’ , but there’s no way I’m passing up a chance to put some Spelljammer on this page. Spelljammer: the fantasy setting for people who are having a puzzling drug trip. Look, a glowing translucent rainbow dragon! In space! And a mediaeval man with a cape full of pixie dust on the bridge of a sailing ship. And the dragon might be about to eat a planet and also I think its head is on fire. Spelljammer, people!)

  1. Robert Jordan

0312850093Yeah, I’ll admit: I seriously liked Jordan at one point (midway through my teens, I guess). And I think I was quite justified. Sure, the first book wasn’t great. In fact it was obviously bad, and obviously a rip-off. And the second was confusingly similar to the first, and the third was promising but went nowhere. But somewhere between the third and the fifth, I got really hooked.

Part of it, of course, was the shear scale. I’d never read anything this big, this sprawling. Stupid as it may be, I liked the polyamorous (and intercultural) relationship, which I’d never seen before in literature – all these damn love triangles all over the place, it was great to see some people just sit down and say ‘you know what, let’s just make this work’. On a similar note, it was originally both titillating and somewhat liberating to see the hints at lesbian sex, which previously I think I’d only read about as a defining trait of decadent villainnesses (of course, the increasingly ubiquitous casual lesbian dalliances and the author’s growing obsession with theoretically-non-lesbian all-female spanking orgies did before too long turn this mildly sexy freshness into stale, repetitive, rather awkward-feeling fanservice and authorial fantasising… but that was later). And I liked the way Jordan wove in elements of hidden SF into the background of his world – it wasn’t new to me, but it was new enough to be intriguing. And perhaps most of all I liked his willingness to take his villains seriously – the Forsaken seemed at times much more interesting than his protagonists. And yes, they may be shallow, but I appreciated the nods to history and mythology, particularly the heavy Arthurian echoes in the background.

But the really striking thing, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for, was Jordan’s use of FRSOHCN1994Amystery. The more you read, the less you seemed to know. I had to keep turning the pages to uncover the secrets. Who killed [spoiler redacted]? Who is Black Ajah and how can you tell? Who is [redacted] hiding as? Is [redacted] secretly Forsaken and what are the subtle clues? There are all these little mysteries to solve, and perhaps Jordan was never all that great at solving them but he was good at setting them up, in a way I hadn’t really encountered in any other work. And that let the length of the series work for it: it gave us time to work ourselves up into fever pitch waiting for the next book when all would(n’t) be revealed. The Wheel of Time was my first sortie into real book fandom, not the nerdy setting fandom I’d looked at before, and it was a vast and captivating world of forums and tributes and parodies and endless speculation. (illustrations: Darrell K. Sweet’s covers for ‘The Eye of the World’ and ‘The Fires of Heaven’)

  1. Gabriel García Márquez

I said above that Pratchett stopped me writing, or at least discouraged me. Gabriel García Márquez had another go at it – convinced me for a good while that I had to write something totally new and radical and ‘literary’ – but more than that he was the author who killed my love of reading. Which… well, that doesn’t sound too great, does it? But it’s a compliment.

9780060114183_p0_v1_s260x420I should be fair. What’s really killed my love of reading – or at least, killed my obsessive infatuation with reading – has been the internet. And discovering films and TV, and maybe, just maybe occasionally, vestiges of a real life perhaps, didn’t help either. But GGM was a big hammer blow.

The thing is, One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was about 16 at the time I think – just destroyed me. It was beautiful, so beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent, and mysterious, and totally new to me, and it made me cry. The ending devastated me… but then for some reason I found myself walking around with my back held straight for a week (I tend to slouch normally, and did so even more as a teenager). It was sublime, and made the world seem different for a while, in an inexpressable way. It made me look at all other books and go “what’s the point?”. I couldn’t write like that, and nor could the other authors I knew of, who suddenly I realised – with perhaps too much enthusiasm, were nothing but pale shadows next to García Márquez.

I never quite recaptured that feeling with any of his other books. Of Love and Other Demons was nice but felt familiar; Chronicle of a Death Foretold was great, but too small. His Collected Stories varied from brilliant to mediocre. And then I tailed off reading him, saving him up for later. But at that point in time, I would certainly have called him one of my favourites. (illustration: not a clue)

  1. Robin Hobb

GGM helped do me a service. He pushed me to grow up, in reading terms. I was 16, 17, and I was still reading more or less the same stuff as when I was 10. Well, I stopped reading it, because it seemed rubbish by comparison – not stopped as in overnight, but I just lost my enthusiasm. Authors ended series and I never bothered to find others to replace them. I felt I wanted to read more of these wonderful, grown-up, real books… but I couldn’t love them, couldn’t be excited by them. And fantasy was just a genre (I didn’t realise at the time that One Hundred Years of Solitude was also Fantasy).2956929d310d14af49572bda75eda315

I’m overstating it; I’m making it more dramatic, more narrative. But there it is. At some point, I borrowed, on holiday, a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice. Now in truth, I started reading that probably before I’d ‘given up on’ Fantasy. So it’s more that as my interest in Fantasy declined, my interest in Hobb remained, and grew as her style grew and deepened. It sparked a brief passion (and a longer-lasting interest) for A Song of Ice and Fire along the way, but it was Hobb who has lasted as my favourite, and who has gradually helped me come back to appreciating the genre. (illustrations: above, Jackie Morris’ painting for the cover of ‘Blood of Dragons’; below, John Howe again with his painting for the cover of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’)

Assassins-Apprentice-port

And you know what I conclude from writing all the above? Fantasy novels used to have really great covers. Sometimes. In the UK, at least. These days, it seems like everything’s “male underwear model glowers at the camera while holding a weapon and having a big cloak”, or even the more direct “AXE!” or “SWORD!” or the like. But paintings like some of the above, even if they often didn’t seem to have anything to do with the events of the book itself, were enchanting. Captivating, even. They promised something – somewhere – wonderful inside the pages of the book. They may have been odd, strange, weird sometimes… but wasn’t that the point? That this wasn’t just the latest Tom Clancey only with swords instead of guns, that this wasn’t a write-up of this or that computer game? That it was going to show you somewhere totally different, totally new? The books may not always have lived up to that, but the covers promised it. I wonder whether I would ever have been as passionate about fantasy – or reading in general – if I’d only had the covers we seem to get today.

 

Anyway, that’s me. What about you?

TOUGH TRAVELLING – True Love

tough-travelingTrue Love

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…

039986-FC222

…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!]

Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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