The Top Ten Books I’ve Reviewed On This Blog

I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.

There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.

So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.

So, here we go….

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Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb

“I found myself speaking softly as if I were telling an old tale to a young child. And giving it a happy ending, when all know that tales never end, and the happy ending is but a moment to catch one’s breath before the next disaster.”

Fitz there is certainly… well, being Fitz. He’s putting the worst possible spin on things; no doubt the Fool, for instance, would give that thought a very different emphasis. But beneath the pessimism, Fitz has managed to put his finger on something fundamental about his world, the world of Robin Hobb novels: there are no happy endings. There are no sad endings, either. There just aren’t any endings at all.

In a way, that was the premise of Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy, which took what was at the time considered one of the greatest endings in the genre, that of her earlier Farseer trilogy, and turned it on its head simply by insisting, “there are no endings… so what happened next?” – I don’t know if that’s how Hobb was thinking of it at the time, but that, in effect, is what happened. And at some point or other she did think of it, because I think that was a clear continuing theme of her Rain Wild Chronicles, and now of the (terribly-named!) The Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

There are no endings. That’s, on the one hand, an incredibly fatuous thing to say… so obvious it’s not worth mentioning… and yet on the other hand it’s a stunningly confrontational statement of intent, a virtual declaration of war against the reader. Because every reader yearns for an ending – for the most part happy ones, but fitting ones at the very least. A story without an ending is scarcely a story at all. Everything we have been taught about stories has trained us to seek out the ending – it’s the ending that gives meaning to the journey. Remember Miss Prism’s prim, Victorian definition of literature, when asked, in The Importance of Being Earnest, about the plot of her ‘three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality’? “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” Many more adventurous novelists than Miss Prism have challenged the details of this. Tom Stoppard, for instance, suggested: “The bad ended unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” But the fundament remains unchanged: it is only when we have reached the end that we know what story we have read – comedy, tragedy, romance… sometimes only then do we believe we know who the author was, what they ‘endorse’, as though the author were a stern, judgemental goddess, handing out rewards and punishments when the characters have fought through the tribulations of the final days and reached the author’s throne in the Ending, from where their souls are scattered this way or that into the blessed Epilogue…

But one way or another, we need to have an ending, the way we need harmonic resolution – the way an unresolved harmony fills us with a bone-deep craving like no other respectable craving, a craving that left unfulfilled can seem to drive us to the point of madness… it is not even just that we need to find out what happens next, since in a way an ending is the opposite of that, a sleight of hand in which the author satisfies us with ‘resolution’ and persuades us we no longer want to know ‘what happens next’. It is resolution we crave: progression into a ground state, the restoration of stability, an end of our labours. What matters about happy ever after is not the ‘happy’ (though that helps) but the ever. What happens? How do they end up? They live happily ever after, and that’s all that happens, and that is the end of our questions.

This is the UK cover

For some reason I’m barely a few paragraphs into this review and already I’m sneaking in pretentious quotations. Sorry about that; but while I’m at it, here’s another. It’s a wise old maxim from the world of economics, originally applied to the theoretical analysis of balance of payments deficits, and it’s called “Stein’s Law”, after its inventor, Herbert Stein, chairman of the American government’s ‘Council of Economic Advisors’ during the 1970s. It’s a rule with a surprisingly broad potential field of application, and it says simply: “If a thing cannot go on forever, it will stop.” On some level, we know this, because it’s just what the words mean. And yet most of us, most of the time, forget about it. Because, after all, nothing can go on forever. Everything stops. The question is not whether a trend will cease, but in what way it will cease.

Isaac Asimov knew this when he talked about population growth. People who worried the population growth of the 1960’s would render the planet earth uninhabitable were, he said, rather missing the point. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that 1960’s population growth trends, if they did not stop, would inevitably, mathematically, mean that within two thousand years every single atom in the known universe would have to be converted into part of a human being and still there wouldn’t be enough matter to make up all the people who would have to exist, let alone to provide anywhere for them to have lunch. Those population trends could not continue… therefore they would stop. The real question – the interesting question perhaps for a science fiction writer – is how they would stop. And, of course, what would happen next as a result.*

“And they all lived happy ever after,” says the fairy tale. But they didn’t. They couldn’t. The world couldn’t just stop in its tracks to let that happy moment carry on into infinity. It cannot go on forever, so it must stop. So what stops it? Well, within the world of a story, the answer is obvious: the story stops it. A story is a thing with its own momentum, after all; sooner or later, it catches up with you. You kill the dark lord, eventually his son comes back looking for revenge. You reinstate the monarchy; eventually the good king’s son or grandson or great-grandson will turn out a tyrant. Bring peace, and one day your suddenly-unemployed generals will rebel. Everything you do has consequences. Consequences never go away – so there can never be any real ending. Karma, innit.

Robin Hobb knows this, and that’s what she’s been doing in her recent career. Saying, again and again “no that’s NOT the end… what happens next?” – to the point where she has her audience thinking it even before the ‘end’ is reached. It’s… upsetting, frankly. We crave a certain ending – a happy ending, or something beautifully, elegantly tragic for a change – but at the same time she is telling us “no, think about it, how could that be the end?”

Every happy ending is just a pause for breath, at best – at worst, it can be form of imprisonment, an imposition of stasis. There is no stasis in Hobb’s books. At the same time, though, the same is true of tragedies – every tragedy is just the backstory for what comes next. So every disaster is tinted with hope, and every triumph is clouded by the fear of loss.

This war on the expected is present in another way also: the richness of possibility in Hobb’s work. At several points, prophecy in Hobb’s world is described as simply seeing all the possible paths that lead away from every individual moment; and frankly, that’s what it’s like reading this book. Every page is filled with potentially significant details, and every two or three pages there is something, some premonition, that points the way toward a new possible future for these characters, this world, this plot. Some of this is foreshadowing; much of it isn’t. In earlier books, I thought Hobb was fond of red herrings, but by this stage ‘red herring’ is a red herring – it’s not that there are false possibilities sprinkled through the text, but that the whole of the text is so dense in its possibilities that is makes no sense to single out this paragraph, that page, as a ‘red herring’. Instead, the pages simply move closer to the texture of real life. Every moment is filled with potential; every insignificant detail may prove significant, and every pivotal moment may prove irrelevant. We do not have the benefit of great glowing signs pointing at things and saying “pay attention, this bit is important!”

There is, in theory, one more book to go in this trilogy, and perhaps this trilogy of trilogies (in theory – I suspect the odds of the final novel being split into two are high). There are probably half a dozen different novels Hobb could write at this point that would feel like fitting conclusions to this series. But there are so many hints and jinks throughout this book that, had Hobb wanted to take some other path through it, there would probably have been a dozen, two dozen different stories that could have been told.

This is also the UK cover. There is a US cover. I’m just not going to show it to you because I hate it.

Of course, the one thing we can be sure of is that Hobb isn’t going to tell the conventional story. Or rather: she won’t tell the conventional story in the traditional conventional way. A lot of what Hobb does is tell old stories in new ways – richer, more lifelike, more intense ways – and that’s exactly what happens here. Anyone who has read to the end of Fool’s Assassin knows exactly what direction Fool’s Quest is going to take… they just might be surprised at how it does it. And, in particular, how slow it is.

That’s not a new trick for Hobb. Back in her Tawny Man trilogy, the whole second half of the second novel, and much of the first half of the third novel – and arguably even the first half of the second novel too – were material that would just be ignored in a traditional epic fantasy. The normal formula is: “X happens, which necessitates that A does Y, so then A does Y.” Hobb defies this. Instead, she wants to know how A finds out about X. How does A react to hearing about X? How does X decide that they need to do Y? How do they feel about doing Y? Are there alternatives to doing Y? How will they do Y? How will they prepare and plan to do Y?” – to take the crudest example, Fool’s Fate spends an awful lot of time on a boat, when most fantasy novels would simply say “the journey took [insert number of weeks]”.

There’s a reason why more authors don’t do this. It slows the pace, and just as importantly it distorts the pace away from its natural rhythm. But there can be such a rich reward, as Fool’s Quest demonstrates, from taking the scenic route. Because although we think about plots in terms of things that happen… what actually happens to happen doesn’t, in itself, really matter. The meaning and the significance come from the pauses between the things that happen. The power comes from how people react to what happens, and how they prepare themselves for what they believe will happen. The actual occasion of things, the business of the events, is only the acting out of the story written in the quiet moments.

The power is in the pauses; and boy is Fool’s Quest a powerful book. Powerful almost beyond comparison – I’ve read emotional books before, but nothing to compare to the crushing intensity of this novel. Reading normal books, I don’t cry. Reading powerful and emotional books, there can be a part of the book where I cry. In Fool’s Quest, there were just the bits when I was actually crying, and the bits when I was only moist of eye. And it wasn’t just tragedy after tragedy. Some of it was tragedy, but more of it was wringing the full affect out of tragedy, and much of it – the most emotional bit of all – was triumph. But then again, like I say: in this novel, triumph and disaster go hand-in-hand, neither ever out of the reader’s mind, like the face and the back of a dancer whirling.

This is what epic fantasy can do: the weight of words and time, the seven lengthy novels that I’ve spent inside FitzChivalry’s head, have allowed me to care deeply about him (and sensitively, the way a scientific instrument becomes sensitive through fine tuning), and about those around him, and the emotional intensity is heightened by narrative devices built into the very world for that very purpose, and laid bare by the brutality and the austerity of the setting. I cannot imagine how a story like this could be told in any other mainstream commercial genre. This is, as George RR Martin commented of the first novel in the trilogy, ‘fantasy as it ought to be written’. But the flipside of that is that this is also what the rest of fantasy is missing. I can understand if not every author wants to write books like Fool’s Quest, and if not every reader wants to commit the time, the effort, and the ravaging of the soul required to read books like Fool’s Quest. But every author in the genre ought to read Hobb’s entire cycle, to learn just what the genre can do, and what they can do in the genre. To learn what havoc can be wreaked on the reader’s mind with a little patience, a little carefulness, a little, very little, sleight of hand.

If part of the power of Hobb, particularly in these later books, comes from the way she defies worn conventions of plot, pace, and consequently character, it is also greatly in debt to the shear brutality that has been present in Hobb right from the beginning. Hobb is not typically cited as a ‘grimdark’ author, nor should she be, as however dark she may be she is never really grim; and in any case, the impact of her violence (physical and symbolic) is only heavier and deeper for its being so often hidden and velveted. This is not a twisted little boy’s-own adventure playing at cultural memories of cowboys and gangsters, romping through depravity sardonically, reassuringly… comfortingly. This is a book, and author, that wants to talk about the horrors of mankind as well as our glories – horrors whether petty or apocalyptic. Yet she doesn’t wallow in the darkness for the sake of wallowing, for the sake of borrowing from it some sheen of gravitas. She keeps the violence penned in, and lets little drips and drabs out like drops of acid.

There’s a lot of that acid in Fool’s Quest in particular, and some readers are not happy about this. Some will ask whether the ferocity and ungentility of that violence is really ‘necessary’. Couldn’t she tell this story in a ‘nicer’ way? In particular, many, glossing over the killings and the mutilations, the bereavements and despairs, will focus on the rape that has been such a constant thread in Hobb’s vision of fantasy. It’s certainly been more prominent elsewhere in Hobb’s work – in both The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles, rape in all its species, from child abuse to domestic abuse via misogyny and exploitation, is one of the dominant themes and a major driver for the plot – but she’s rarely thrown it quite as violently and offputtingly in the face of the reader as here. Isn’t talking about this unduly unpleasant for polite, comfortable reading? Did she have to make rape seem so ugly? Isn’t purposefully crafting a world in which rape is no less common – or even more common – than in contemporary reality inherently misogynist? Especially given that, in a novel wedded so closely and so inescapably to a male narrator discussing his own deeds as a male protagonist in a male-lead (if not quite male-dominated) society, rape will almost always be more important as a source of motivation for a male bystander than as a motivation for a female victim, and will always be told through a male perspective?

No, not really. Indeed, I suspect the author would feel quite the opposite. My mind goes back to that passage in (if I recall correctly?) Assassin’s Quest in which the Fool attempts to say what became of a particular woman in a raided village, and in his answer loses her individuality into the sea of human suffering, as we realise that each possible future for that woman becomes an actual future for some woman, in some village. And I also remember the passages in which those gifted with the Skill, Hobb’s telepathic gift/curse fruitlessly fight out their war against the raiders through the bodies of others – kings and princes and bastards of royal blood who spend their nights living and dying again and again the sufferings of their people; and I remember how the ultimate villainy in that first trilogy was, in essence, to retreat and to abandon, to shut oneself up in fine houses with fine wines and not talk about what was happening out on the coast. Hobb has no sympathy with that attitude; and I don’t think she would have much sympathy with applying it to fiction, either. Hobb doesn’t want us to avoid talking about victims; she lets her men be motivated by the horrors suffered by women, because that is how change happens. People with power, people with safety, people with privilege, have to be motivated to change the world… because the problems that can be solved purely by the powerless, by themselves, are by definition not the big problems. Hobb could have written these novels about the rape victims themselves, dealing with their problems themselves… but then they would have been books about sod all changing, because these victims don’t have power, that’s why they were in a position to be victimised. [Although, for the record, her Liveship Traders and Rain Wild Chronicles books are both primarily lead by female characters, including rape victims; it’s also worth pointing out that many of her characters may not be presented as the protagonists of these books, yet are presented with enough depth and complexity to be so – I’ve just been having a debate, for instance, about how much Starling is made to seem worse than she is by Fitz’s blinkered perspective, and how the world looks from her side of the story – unlike so many novels, I believe Hobb’s works have enough subtlety around the edges that the perspectives of peripheral characters can still be experienced by a careful reader]. So these are not going to be books in which we politely, respectfully, do not talk about bad things, and they are going to be books in which the sufferings of the powerless are going to be motivations for people who may have the power to do something about it (or not, of course…).

On the other hand, going back again to Farseer: the ultimate nightmare in those trilogies – not merely a villainy but a nightmare – was the loss of empathy. We have to be able to confront tragedy, but not become inured to its pain. That is, I suppose, the path that Hobb traces between the soi dissant progressives on the one hand, with their calls for a bowdlerised, utopianised fantasy of empowerment and escapism, and on the other hand the tawdriest excesses of grimdark slaughterporn, in which the worst of life is made to seem unthreatening through hyperbole, repetition, and flippancy. Face the suffering, and be motivated by it. That may be how those two extremes come to seem almost the same, two sides of the same disconnected coin…

This is, incidentally, also something that progresses through the course of Hobb’s novels, as her protagonist progresses. Thinking in raw terms, the content of Farseer is much more unpleasant than that of Fool’s Quest… it just doesn’t seem that way. Because Farseer is told by, and about, a young man, with the spiritual cushioning of youth. He is able to gloss over many things, and rebound from others. The Fitz of Fool’s Quest, on the other hand, is a man entering old age, and he has a far more sunken, haunted look to his eyes. Things hurt more now. And ye gods but when I was reading Assassin’s Quest I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that…

Specifically, this is the hardback cover. I can’t show you the paperback cover, because it doesn’t exist yet. Also, when it does exist, it will probably be identical to the hardback.

In fact, this is a Fitz who frankly, after the events of Fool’s Asssassin, has been left on the brink of madness. Fitz has always been prone to depression – something that he at least seems to be more aware of in his later years, even though that hasn’t solved the problem – and now the wrenching intensity of the catastrophes of the last book, combined with an accumulated lifetime of petty tragedies, have created a man who seems compelled by fury and lean with death. It’s to his credit, then, and to Hobb’s, that he is also now perhaps at his most caring, his most sensitive. Even if he would now make Liam Neeson go shit himself. [Although, disturbingly, he still remains only the second- or third-most sociopathic of the ‘heroes’ of the novel].

It is, in a way, exactly that sensitivity, that caring, that has left him so dangerous, to himself and to others. It is what has made him unpredictable – what has transformed him into a wild marble careening around this so-carefully-set-up board. And most fascinating perhaps is the way that he goes beyond the borders of what seemed to be his world, barging unceremoniously into the territory of other novels. The ‘northern’ (Fitz-based) and ‘southern’ (non-Fitz-based) strands of Hobb’s cycle have never been entirely kept apart, thanks to You Know Who’s appearance in The Liveship Traders and several Liveship characters having cameo performances in The Tawny Man. But Fool’s Quest is the first time we see these two sub-worlds collide head-on, and I look forward eagerly to seeing the fall-out in the next installment. Needless to say, putting Fitz into the world of the Rain Wilds throws an entirely different light onto the events of the earlier novels, as well as updating us on events we’ve missed in the most tantalising and infuriatingly distant way. If only we could just have some of these people sit down and talk with one another honestly and openly…

…but that’s always the frustration with Hobb. Everybody always has ulterior motives, prejudices, secrets that they need to hide, or think they need to hide. Everybody plays with their cards close to their chests, not only the clinically paranoid Fitz… but then again, the shear intensity of the emotions bared whenever a true heart-to-heart occurs shows exactly why people find excuses to avoid them…

I need to stop waffling soon. How about this as a summary: Fool’s Quest may well be the best and/or my favourite fantasy novel. It wasn’t an easy read – though frankly I am left less troubled by the overt violence and emotion, and more by the creeping feeling that things are getting worse and worse for Fitz, cognitively and behaviourally speaking, and there is less and less chance of a happy ending. But while… oh, hang on.

I’ve just remembered, I need to mention the role of prophecy. Hobb gives us perhaps the best portrayal of prophecy that I can remember in fantasy: while there is never any doubt about the sincerity of the prophets, or the reality of their experiences, the prophecies themselves are invariably couched in such terms that the readers (and the characters) can never quite be sure what is meaningful and what is not, what will happen and what has happened already – if we were not so close emotionally to the issuers of prophecy, I suspect the reader would even be able to deny the predictive power of the prophecies altogether. That doesn’t sound like much: it’s how everybody tries to write prophecy – meaningful in hindsight, but cryptic and inconclusive before the fact. The problem is, it’s hard to do this while making these prophecies feel natural, feel like real, human visionary experiences. Hobb, unlike most writers, succeeds.

Needless to say, where Hobb does not succeed is in her villains, who remain ultimately ridiculous – beginning at human, they pass through menacing and frightening and soon emerge into the realm of laughable caricatures. It continues to baffle me that an author who gave us one of the genre’s greatest, most nuanced and (horrifically, punishingly) sympathetic villains in The Liveship Traders has in every other work of hers given us these ridiculous moustache-twirlers. So far, however, the villains of this series have been elevated by two things: first, by the cleverness of their fundamental conceit, which makes them intriguing and peculiarly unnerving; and second by the decision to, so far, reveal them to us only in the form of their relatively low-ranking – and hence confused, frustrated and limited – agents. I fear that – as in The Tawny Man – what subtlety there is in that regard will be thrown out in the concluding novel as we arrive (as, at least, I assume we will, though nothing can be taken for granted with Hobb) at the rotted centre of their evil.

…right, can I finish now? Fool’s Quest certainly wasn’t an easy read, although strangely, despite the harrowing, I do sort of think of it as comfort reading – perhaps because in Fitz the readers can be assured of always going through these adventures with a well-beloved friend at their side (no pun intended). It’s like curling up in a comfortable warm chair in the middle of the winter – and although these books unaccountably come out in summer, it’s hard not to hear the blizzard howling at the windows when reading this. Both literally and psychologically, Fool’s Quest takes us into the bitterest and barrenest winter of these chronicles. It is a triumphant – though never triumphalist – display of what is possible in the fantasy genre, from its worldbuilding (the place-name ‘Wortletree’ aside – you can’t get them all right…) to its characterisation, to its scenes of action and suspense. Fantasy as it ought to be written.

It’s a bit unfortunate really that I’ve chosen to write a really long review of a book I happen to only have one good cover of. I should go back and write an incredibly long review of The Man Who Was Thursday or something instead. There are dozens of great covers for that one.

Adrenaline: 4/5. There’s a lot of catching-breath. But there’s also a lot of tension, and some explosive action scenes that are as well-written as always. It’s like if a Liam Neeson film were also a deep and introspective character study.

Emotion: 5/5. Well obviously. “Emotion” does not begin to describe the intensity of this novel.

Thought: 4/5. Deliberate pacing, subtle nods and winks (how many novels can turn an observation on the herbal seasoning of a chicken into a fist-punching moment?) a constant web of possibilities, an atmosphere tinged with paranoia, and a very clever conceit underlying the antagonists make for a thoroughly thinky experience, even if it’s not concerned with particularly complicated theorising.

Beauty: 4/5. Hobb’s prose is never going to win literary awards – and perhaps that’s for the best, as we are after all having the whole story narrated to us by a character, and a character with a very particular voice. But where I think her prose started off weak, by now it has become really quite polished – heavy, but not incapable of moments of beauty. The real beauty here, though, is in the situations, the ironies, the call-backs and the culminations. The appropriateness of things.

Craft: 5/5. As I say, the prose isn’t the best ever invented, but it quite suffices. The character work is of higher than the first order, and the plotting is exquisite.

Endearingness: 5/5. Some people might quail either at its slow pacing or at its unpleasant moments. Me, I think this is about as adorable as fiction can be – immersive, intense, yet welcoming and humane.

Originality: 4/5. There is a degree of familiarity about the contour of the plot, and about some of the incidents. That said, the perpetual pluripotency of its plot makes even familiar turns seem surprising, and this surprise in combination with the distinctive nature of the delivery push this above par for originality.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT. While fans cheering for this character or that plot development may be disappointed by things not going their way, I cannot really think of any significant flaw in this novel. Literary afficionados will complain that it is not a prose poem, and that the plot is rooted in genre; but these are simply part of the product on offer, and the book would not be ‘better’ by conforming more closely to ‘literary’ conventions instead; it is also worth noting that while the language does have that slightly heavy and old-fashioned tone common to the genre, that doesn’t prevent it from delivering fantastic lines, whether melancholy ruminations on life or just witty deadpan remarks. Similarly, the large page count and slow pace are simply part of the subgenre, intentional choices, and do not betray any authorial indecision or structural flaccidity. The text is sometimes painful, and at other times frustrating, but both are likewise intentional and calculated manoeuvres by the author. The closest I can get to an overt flaw is the excessive, cartoonish evil of the antagonists; but as the ultimate antagonists themselves remain off the page, and the proximate antagonists we actually encounter are effectively humanised and fleshed out, this is more a fear, for the following book, and on the basis of past experience, rather than an actual issue with this book itself. It could also be objected that despite being a lengthy novel there is little actual resolution here (quite the contrary, as it ends on something approaching a cliffhanger – although the book certainly does have more form and completion in its own right than did Dragon Keeper, which did originate as the first half of a split novel and is still observably so). But to accuse this middle book of a trilogy of being, in essence, the middle book of a trilogy would be to shake a fist at literature itself rather than at this novel. At least in a book like this one there is genuinely the sense that the word-count, the novel-count, will be paid off – especially since the experience here is at least as important as the future conclusion. And finally, Fool’s Quest did leave me with some fears for how this series is going to end, how on earth Hobb is going to be able to wrap all this up satisfactorily… but again, that is a problem, if it turns out to be a problem, for next time. This book, in itself… I can find no serious flaws.

Put simply, this novel is brilliant. It’s a shame that so (relatively) few people will haul their way through 15 heavy novels to reach this point. After all, what’s the point of reviewing a novel like Fool’s Quest? If you’re a Hobb fan, you know how good it is already. If you’re not a Hobb fan, a good review of Book 15 is probably not going to get you to pick up Book 1. But I think it needs to be said anyway: this isn’t just the latest comfort-read extension of a perennial epic fantasy cycle… it is that… but it’s also plainly and frankly a brilliant novel.

Maybe if I include a picture of the cover enough times, it’ll work as subliminal advertising?

 

*[A more down-to-earth example is provided by the ongoing Republican Presidential primaries. The former front-runner, JEB! (real name John Ellis Bush), has based his campaign on a promise to return America to the 4% per annum GDP growth of the Clinton years, figures not seen since his brother took over the economy (and only ever seen for four or more consecutive years during the ‘90s and during the early ‘60s, but that’s another issue). What would 4% growth mean, in the long term? Well, assuming GDP per capita growth continues to track GDP growth as it has historically (i.e. there isn’t a sudden baby boom), and assuming that the relationship of median income to GDP per capita remains approximately the same (the average US citizen earns about $24,000, compared to the $56,000 they’d get if annual production were simply shared out equally), 4% growth would mean that by the end of this century the average American would have an income, in real terms (that is, in terms of relative spending power today, taking into account inflation), of about $725,000 a year – in other words, under this plan, by 2100 every American would only have to work about 5 years of their life, and could then live the rest of their life off interest and investments. Well that sounds fun! But it’s nothing like 2200, by which time everyone will have a personal income of $36million… (if you think I’m making fun of Bush, consider: if GDP growth remains at its current anaemic, sluggish, unacceptable great-recession level… by 2300, the average American will still have a yearly income of $2.5million, in real terms. That’s not a bad worst-case scenario!)… this has nothing much to do with Robin Hobb, I just thought I’d share…]

Now go buy it!

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’)

winter-holiday-cover

  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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City of Dragons, by Robin Hobb

City of Dragons is #3 in the Rain Wild Chronicles, and #12 in the overall Realm of Elderlings cycle. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that, just as Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven are essentially two parts of a single novel, City of Dragons is (the beginning of) a sequel to that novel, rather than a book organically conceived of as the third part of a tetralogy. So, just as the first two books are related more tightly than most books in a series, so too, in reverse, this third book is rather more loosely tied to the preceding two than would be expected. In particular, although this is a sequel set very shortly after the end of the second novel, and continued the storylines of the main protagonists, it also feels like much more than a continuation of their story, with more POVs introduced and a significantly broader scope, in terms not only of geography and plotlines but also thematic content.

I’m not going to say too much about this. There’s a limit to what you can say in book 3 of 4, let alone book 12 of (so far) 13, especially as I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Moreover, I was a bit stung last time around, ending up not writing a review for Dragon Haven, just because it was so much a continuation of Dragon Keeper that I wished I waited and written a joint review of both. Well, this time I’m not exactly doing that, but the plan is relatively short comments on each.

What I do have to say – and a big part of why I’m saying anything at all rather than waiting until I’ve made it through the concluding (as though anything in Hobb’s world is ever concluded!) volume – is that a lot of my concerns in the first two books were addressed here. In my opinion, City of Dragons is a substantially better book.

 

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I'm glad I don't live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

But a truly terrible cover. There are lots of reasons I’m glad I don’t live in the US, but the terrible American covers for Robin Hobb novels are surprisingly high on the list.

I didn’t think so at first. I’m not going to give away too much, but it’s fair to say that one thing I’ve always disliked with Hobb is the way she likes to create blacker-than-black villains. The one exception to this is the Liveship Traders trilogy, where the central villain is nuanced and many-hued, and even with the more simplistic secondary villain you can sort of see their warped but fundamentally benign motivations underneath. This is a big part of why I feel Liveships is probably the most satisfying of her works as a story, even if she was not quite as technically proficient as in her later works, and even though it is perhaps less emotionally powerful due to the more remote and flawed characters. Well, at the beginning of City of Dragons, we’re right back in cheesy villain territory.

But that aside (and it’s a minor quibble in terms of how much of the book it actually affects), it’s a great book. If I had a complaint, it might be that it’s a bit too ambitious for its wordcount. It does feel sometimes as though it’s trying to keep hold of too many story threads at once – it never loses control exactly, but some bits end up getting too little attention (or perhaps too much – one storyline in particular I thought was entirely superfluous to the plot and should either have been dropped or else expanded to be more valuable in its own right). Indeed, it wasn’t until the opening, catch-up chapters of the final volume, Blood of Dragons, that I realised how many characters I’d been allowed to entirely forget about during the events of City of Dragons.

So why is it a success despite that? I think there are four key reasons. Firstly, the introduction of a returning POV from the Liveships novels is not only enjoyable in its own right, and a nostalgic pleasure, but also helps to tie the story in to the wider world-story with which the readers have become invested over so much time. Indeed, where the first two books in the series felt rather isolated, rather all-to-themselves – like a novella set in the world of the books, rather than a full part of the narrative in their own right – this one works well in using both its scope and its plot to make it feel a more integral part of the world. In particular, I, and no doubt other, fans adored a surreptitious but completely logical (indeed inevitable) callback all the way to a minor scene in the Farseer novels, written a decade and a half earlier, which really helped the novel demonstrate its place in this mythos. Secondly, the broader plot and scope accompany a broadening of theme – this not only gives more to offer to readers not fascinated by the concerns of the first two volumes, but also helps, in my opinion, all the themes stand out better, allowed to breathe and interplay rather than being hammered home. In all respects there is a much less claustrophobic feel to this book. Which ties into the third reason: while the first two novels, despite the dragons of the title, dealt with a pretty prosaic matter, this third novel is given freer reign and allowed to introduce far more tantalising and enthralling fantasy elements.

But the fourth reason is simple: it’s more exciting. The first two books were pretty much devoid of serious long-term peril: danger was short-term, while the long-term threats were more problems that might have danger attached perhaps at some point in the future. Here, at least for some characters, there’s real and present threat, in a coherent and lingering way, and that adds much more tension to the novel. It also gives us more of Hobb’s sparsely-used and underestimated, but very strong, action writing, and in particular it gives us perhaps the most… I’m not sure what the word is even. I’d say grimdark, but while it doesn’t have the hopelessness or cynicism I associate with that; perhaps brutal? I’m tempted to just sound a bit teenage and say hardcore, with the caveat that I’m talking about authors and character actions, not about eroticism. So, this book gives us perhaps the most pure hardcore brutal scene I’ve ever read – sure, I’ve read bloodier passages and passages that liked to trumpet their ‘maturity’ and sophisticated darkness, but this one just spits in their face and calls them out for the adolescent fantasies that those scenes mostly are. If Robin Hobb’s books were walking in a dark town at night and were suddenly accosted by some leering grimdark novels in a dark alleyway and told in horrible detail what would happen to them if they didn’t do exactly what they were told because look, they’ve got a knife, this would be the scene where they grinned slightly dementedly and reached behind themselves for something and then said “you call that a knife? … …THIS is a knife!”

I really can safely say I never expected to read that in an epic fantasy novel.

[And now a little bit that should really have been in the review of probably the second book rather than the third, but it still sort of applies: why is everybody gay here? Hobb regularly deals with sexuality, particularly female sexuality, and has touched on homosexual behaviour among men both in Liveships and in Tawny Man (I use the ungainly term ‘homosexual behaviour’ because, particularly in the former novels, it may not be accurate to consider the behaviour to be the result of an underlying homosexual orientation in this case). I have no problem with this – indeed, it very much fits into the general atmosphere and ideology of her books, and it also fits the themes in this tetralogy. In a story about exclusion and difference, it seems very natural to include homosexuality. But I do have a few problems with how it’s shown here:
a) at least 50% of the sizeable male cast is gay (compared to 1%-7% in reality)
b) nobody seems to feel that this is an unusual coincidence
c) gay characters are completely and unambiguously gay. Nobody’s (except briefly in flashback) unsure, ambivalent, curious, open-minded, complicated, changeable, or just plain bisexual. (in reality, bisexual men are a significant proportion of non-heterosexual men, and both bisexuals and homosexuals are themselves outnumbered by those who declare themselves uncertain or hard to define)
d) despite 50% of the male cast being gay, there’s still not a single lesbian (or otherwise non-completely-and-unambiguously-heterosexual woman), just as there hasn’t been in any of the previous books – fair enough by itself, of course (see note above about numbers), but coupled with the prominence of male homosexuality (for the third series running) it looks a little odd
e) several characters, both gay and non-gay, appear to have perfect ‘gaydar’. This despite the fact that this culture seems to lack a clear gay male stereotype to conform to, the gay characters are very different from one another, and the culture actively condemns homosexuality forcing gay men to hide their sexuality… yet somehow people can still tell instantly? Do they sparkle distinctively in twilight or something?

I don’t have a political problem with all this particularly, though I can see how somebody could (I suspect a male author writing about lesbian casts in this way would garner much more criticism). Rather, it just seems to be getting rather silly…]

 

Now that's a cover!

Now that’s a cover!

Anyway, that’s probably enough for me to have said this time out. I’ll be back in the near future with a review of the final installment…

For now, scores (with little in the way of commentary, maybe more next time):

Adrenaline: 4/5. Not an out-and-out thriller, but a good pace and some effective peril.

Emotion: 4/5. Mostly from only one plot thread, it should be said…

Thought: 4/5. Getting really interesting, with the way Hobb sets up competing interests against a background of the inevitability of change. There’s never really a ‘right answer’ or a ‘happy ending’.

Beauty: 3/5.

Craft: 4/5. I just feel the outright villains are a bit TOO crude, and a bit too convenient.

Endearingness: 4/5.

Originality: 5/5. At that stage in a series where everything is unique, as no other book is likely to deal with these situations, but Hobb goes above and beyond that in crafting a personal vision.

Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Not only the best in this series so far, but one of the best novels by Hobb that I’ve read.

 

P.S. on covers: I wish publishers would let us have matching series. That is, I get why they want to reskin them every now and then, particularly series like this that come out over decades, but I wish they still produced matching covers for the later books. I’m going to end up with nine volumes of Howe covers, four volumes of this set of Morris covers, and then the next trilogy in another set of Morris covers. And while the new ones (the only ones that the entire series will be in) are good, they’re my least favourite of the three! Honestly, if I could get complete sets in both these Morris designs and in the Howe designs, I probably would buy them all (eventually). But as it is, if you want a complete set you need to wait until the author dies before you buy anything, to make sure they’re not going to write any more books with a different cover design…

 

P.P.S. still pissed off that my ISP periodically bans access to WordPress.

Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

(Interested readers may like to note that I’ve also got (mostly spoiler-free) reviews up of the nine preceding Realm of Elderlings novels, indexed here.)

Dragon Keeper is the first novel in the Rain Wild Chronicles series. However, as it follows the events of The Farseer Trilogy, The Liveship Traders and The Tawny Man, it is essentially the tenth novel of the combined Realm of Elderlings cycle. In particular, it follows quite directly on from the Liveship trilogy, though recurring characters are limited to cameo roles.

After twelve novels in a cycle, a certain amount of selection has inevitably occurred. It is unlikely many people will read this without being a dedicated Hobb fan to begin with – although in fact (and perhaps the later installments of this quartet will change this) this seems a pretty good belated starting place, in terms of plot if not perhaps in terms of style. The events of the previous trilogies have, as it were, created a blank canvass – one that is now actually rather closer to traditional fantasy than when the cycle began.

The key, however, is not the plot, but the approach. Hobb’s way of writing has changed over the course of the twelve novels, becoming more and more reflective, more and more observational, more and more determined to use the trappings of the fantasy genre to enable an examination of interpersonal universals. This, in the end, is both the virtue and the vice of this novel.

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Farseer was a trilogy all about growing up, a trilogy about sons and their fathers; Tawny Man was all about having grown up, a trilogy about fathers and their sons. Liveships, on the other hand, with its large cast, had an appropriately broad focus – but perhaps it can be roughly said to be a story about the subjugation of women. It was about families, and family-like structures, and social rules that marginalised women (and some men), and it was about how women (and men who failed to live up to the expectations had of men) could accomodate, accept, rebel against, negotiate with and circumvent those rules. The first weakness of Dragon Keeper unfortunately is that we seem to come back to old ground, and not, as in the Tawny Man, by approaching the same field from a new direction. Instead, Dragon Keeper is content to address the same questions as Liveships, albeit perhaps now with a different emphasis – domestic abuse, particularly of an emotional kind, comes to the fore (not that it was absent in Liveships, of course!), and the emphasis is less on institutions themselves and more on those marginalised by those institutions.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with addressing these topics in a fantasy novel – Liveships did it very well. Nor is there necessarily anything inherently wrong with returning to those themes a second time. The weakness of Dragon Keeper is that its psychology, following the same lines as Liveships, appears both more verbose and less insightful. The complex web of psychological cause and effect that drove tragedy in Liveships is reduced to a matter of some people just being narcissists and not very nice to be around. It’s frankly not all that appealing. On the one hand, the author and her characters appear to attribute such wonderfulness and ‘magical’ power to the abusive parties, wonderfulness even in their ability to abuse, that they seem almost to be superhuman: it’s hard to imagine how anybody ordinary and petty could be abusive, in this book; abusiveness is almost something worthy of worship, it seems. On a second hand, and relatedly, it’s surprisingly difficult to sympathise with some of these marginalised characters. So much of what happens to them is their own fault, is brought on directly by being ridiculously foolish or narcissistic themselves, that it’s hard to really side with them entirely when we see the consequences. And that’s fair enough I suppose, in theory – except that we also don’t really get to see why they’re foolish and/or narcissistic. We’re left with neither a plain account of victimisation nor a more contentious account of how some victims bring their victimhood upon themselves. Liveships handled this much better, in how it showed how one tragedy, one slight, one insult, one disaster, led on to the next, victims often either entrenching themselves in victimhood or becoming abusers in their own right; Dragon Keeper leaves us puzzling over a snapshot of ultimately unmotivated unhappiness.

Now, part of this is a problem to do with publishing. Dragon Keeper was not written as a novel, but as the first part of a novel, which then became the first part of the first novel in a duology, and was then split out into a novel in its own right. It ends not even with a cliffhanger, but with a cessation – a cessation, indeed, just as the plot is beginning to get going. As a result, it’s even harder to judge in its own right than the first installment of a series usually is; perhaps both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters will have much about them explained in the second half of this story, and these concerns will flood away. It’s hard to judge a set-up when we haven’t yet heard the punchline. And that’s a broader problem with the splitting in two of the novel: even more than normal in the first part of a series, what we have here is purely the set-up, purely the introduction of the characters and their situation.

Taken in its own right, however, this is the second big weakness of the book. Deprived of the excitement of a climax, all we have is unsatisfying and extremely prolonged anticipation; deprived of the sense of a conclusion, all we have is a congeries of threads, lying aside one another with, as yet, no clear picture of how they are to join, what the finished tapestry is meant to look like. This is of course a problem always experienced in the middle of a book: but this time we’re invited to put the story down halfway through, and wait until we buy the second installment, and that added time allows the reader’s impression of the half-finished work to sour. It’s a problem also often seen in long, epic fantasy series – both The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire have provoked considerable frustration over the way they have placed their readers in the unsatisfying middle portion of a story for years, even decades, on end. Dragon Keeper has an advantage on these series, in that the pressure for a resolution is lesser, thanks to the smaller scale and scope of Hobb’s story, but it also has disadvantages: it has even less of a satisfying arc structure as a standalone novel, and it also has less actual incident than anything outside of Crossroads of Twilight. The entire plot could have been gotten through in three or four chapters, if the author had wished. Now, this isn’t Crossroads of Twilight – the wordcount is dedicated primarily to psychological analysis, rather than descriptions of scenery and repetitive conversations, and it doesn’t feel particularly bloated in the moment of reading. But there is a strangely protracted feel to it as a whole, that I didn’t feel was fully justified by how well we got to know the characters, or how complicated those characters are.

And yet I don’t want it to seem as though Hobb has gone off the rails here. I can see what she is doing, and although it’s not always what I’d like her to be doing, she is doing it well. Her writing is as good as ever, if not better, and she’s able to create vivid characters and compelling situations and realistic psychologies. In a way it’s particularly impressive just how readable I found the book, given that I’m interested in perhaps only one character in the novel, and that very little of interest actually happens: Hobb has the magical knack of bringing her readers to invest in her world (though it should be said, sadly, that her world and its revelation are probably less interesting here than ever before), her characters, her plots, even without the honey that authors usually need to dole out; I may have found the novel frustrating, occasionally even a little tiresome, but I didn’t find it dull, and I never imagined for a second putting it aside. I’ve also quickly gone out and bought the sequel.

Ultimately, what Hobb accomplishes in this novel, even more than in her earlier work, is a fusion of realistic, relatable character drama (half soap opera, half literary character portrait) with a fantasy setting, complete with quests and dragons and magic and mediaeval (or in this case early modern) ornamentation. The sugary fantasy material makes the sometimes dry psychological material go down more easily, while the portrait painting adds both prestige and depth to the fantasy. For those who can tolerate the slow, old-fashioned pace (and Hobb’s earlier books, with the exception perhaps of Golden Fool, were action-packed by comparison), it remains a potent mixture – although I do think that this time she may just have strayed a little far in the direction of dry.

Adrenaline: 3/5. The pace is slow: very slow. But it is a deliberate pace, and although little happens there is ample supply of premonition and foreboding to pull the reader through.

Emotion: 3/5. While the characters may generally not be all that sympathetic, they are vivid, rounded, and enmeshed in emotive situations. Not much happens, but the status quo as described is sufficiently painful to evoke some emotion by itself.

Thought: 3/5. Psychological analysis and a fairly unusual plot keep the brain engaged, although both dimensions seem a little too simplistic in execution.

Beauty: 3/5. As is usually the case with Hobb, her prose is unremarkable, and the flashes of beautiful imagery are balanced by her willingness to describe the horrific and the ugly.

Craft: 4/5. Although, as you can probably tell, I’m a little underwhelmed by this book, I do think that it’s as well written a book as Hobb has produced. The prose and the plotting and the characterisation all seem more deliberate and controlled (though we can deduce that word-count is still something the author has difficulties mastering…)

Endearingness: 2/5. Hard to imagine giving this score to a Hobb novel, since normally she’s one of my favourite writers. And it’s not that there’s anything actively repulsive about the book. But, whether its the choice of characters, or the half-finished nature, or the (valuable and respectable but not overly fun) themes, or the relative lack of action, but… I just didn’t love it. Perhaps that will change in hindsight, once I see how this fits into the whole – there have been quite a few half-books by Hobb I haven’t loved, and quite a few characters who have seemed unsympathetic at first, and I’m more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But right now, I didn’t instinctively like this book very much.

Originality: 3/5. Hobb’s reputation is so great, and her world so well-established, that she’s outgrown the need for the more formulaic plots of her early novels; and so, if one were to write down the characters of this novel and the plot they limn, it would be a fairly distinctive shape. On the other hand, her world has become more conventional, and there seems less interest, at least in this novel, in exploring its unusual elements. So average, on average.

Overall: 5/7. GOOD. Dragon Keeper is probably a step down in quality from Hobb’s best work, and I certainly think it will be less accessible to average epic fantasy fans. But for what it is, it’s actually quite good – and certainly good enough not to discourage me from continuing on to the next volume.

 

 

P.s. On going into a shop to physically buy the next installment because I didn’t want to wait for a postal delivery, I discovered that Hobb’s earlier books, such as the Farseer novels, now have yet another edition, and it’s got yet another stunning cover. How come there are so many terrible fantasy novel covers, when Hobb’s able to get cover after cover, in totally different styles, all wonderful? Here are the UK editions of Assassin’s Apprentice I know about:

assassins-apprentice1

John Howe’s beautiful romanticist painting and almost tactile framing, complete with a potent scent of his famous Tolkien paintings.

assassins-apprentice-2A totally different but equally beautiful, simplistic, symbolic approach from Jackie Morris. The thumbnail doesn’t do justice to the glossy silver-gilt beauty of it in real life – it’s a style that reminds me strongly both of mediaeval painting (the Wilton Diptych, for instance) and of late-19th/early-20th ‘childlike’ fantasy illustrations.

 

 

Assassins-Apprentice-3  I don’t know who made this one, and to be honest I wouldn’t put it at quite the level of the first two, but it’s still really attractive. It’s striking, simple, pretty, and conveys something of the style of the novel, while still being perhaps more fashionable in style than the above works.

AA-4

 

 

 

 

And then because those weren’t enough, I also noticed this one – it’s a hardback edition, with a totally different, almost modernist style.

 

 

On the other hand, her American covers are just ghastly, so maybe there is some justice after all.