Review: Fool’s Quest

Fool's Quest

My love for Robin Hobb’s novels is pretty all-encompassing. She’s my favourite writer and has been from the first time I read one of her books. Her worlds are immersive, her characters more real to me than any others, and her prose beautiful and effortless. In fact, I love her so much that I’m not even capable of being flippant in this review, not even a little bit (I know, right?). So watch out, unabridged sincerity ahead!

Housekeeping stuff first: I’m talking about Fool’s Quest, but much of what I have to say is about the broader story as much as this particular book. While the first & second trilogies (Assassins and Liveships) and the later quartet could be read as independent pieces*, this series can’t – don’t even think about picking it up unless you’ve read the first 6 Fitz/Fool books first, and preferably all 13 prior books in that world. However, I’m not spoiling anything and I hope if you’re reading this and you haven’t read any of Hobb’s books, this will encourage you to go and fix that right now.

So. First up, the Feelz.

God, this book. As we near the end of 20 years of storytelling in this world, each layer on the Farseer story becomes more finely tuned, more exquisitely complete in its exploration of the lives of the characters. My heart hurts just thinking about the end next year. After so many stories, so many intertwined characters and plotlines and long term plans that we have glimpsed, fragmented, over the last 14 books, Hobb manages to bring them together so masterfully that you cannot doubt she (or possibly more accurately, at least in part her subconscious) has been perfectly controlling every thread the entire time. She throws the contents of a kaleidoscope into the air but when it lands the thousands of little chips form a seamless, effortless, inevitable picture. I don’t know how this story will finally resolve next year: what I do know is that it will be a viscerally satisfying conclusion of a journey I have travelled for two decades. That, and I’m probably going to cry some more.

Now to the more technical stuff.

As always, her writing is so smooth and rhythmic, an invisible first class carriage of the story (albeit with an occasional polite throat-clearing drawing attention to a sentence or analogy too perfect not to make me smile). But this has never been about her prose, beautiful though it is: that is just the vehicle by which she takes us through an utterly immersive world and a story that, while fantastic in nature, is (like all the best of the genre) really about humanity.

It occurred to me, first when I picked up Fool’s Quest and again throughout the reading process, that the prevailing emotion I associate with these books now is fear. Hobb doesn’t write thrillers or horrors. But she is a master of fear: not shock, not terror, but a deep, subtle, invasive dread, the kind that only comes from deep investment in characters and an unshakeable awareness that the author will follow through the full and sometimes terrible consequences of every choice and mistake they make. She has trained her readers in fear and consequences and the desperate lure of the possibility of perfect emotional satisfaction.

I will pick a corner against any challengers to my claim that no writer in the fantasy genre properly and emphatically explores consequences like Hobb. There are many ways in which she demonstrates mastery of this, but the two that stand out are her treatment of violence and her regard for the relationships that bind us in myriad small and significant ways.

On the first point, without spoiling anything, the Fitz & Fool stories deal with violence, including torture, and its aftermath, both physical and emotional. The torture occurs both on page and off, but never gratuitously, never without purpose – characters neither use violence or suffer it to move conveniently through plot points, and they are never free of those decisions or those events. Characters who were tortured scores of years before in book terms are still feeling the effects, and always will. While I have a reasonably high tolerance for violence in storytelling, I find it infuriating to see it used in otherwise solid novels as though it is a fleeting, momentary thing, easily forgotten. In Hobb’s worlds there are no heroes casually torturing villains to get key information, then walking away untouched by the incident. There are no victims of serious violence who bounce back after that event has served its story purpose, never to be gripped by terrors and memories and reactions to others that they can never learn to control. The things we do and those that are done to us have consequences, and Hobb never lets her characters – or us – forget it.

On the latter point, perhaps it is because I come from a large and close family, or because I live in the (smallish) city in which I was born and grew up, that this resonates so strongly with me. The entanglements of long relationships are as much a part of life to me as breathing. So it always with a degree of frustration that I observe the majority of characters in fiction – not just SFF – blithely roaming throughout their lives and often the entire world with only the bare minimum of connections with other people: a love interest, a couple of friends or colleagues, an antagonist, and maybe a sibling or a child (though usually a dead one, to go with the dead or invisible parents, especially mothers).

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that things are popular devices for a reason, and that reason is convenience. If you’re writing a workplace based bit of fiction, it muddies the waters if you allow your protagonist relationships outside that space. If your story is an epic, wouldn’t it be a lot easier for your hero if you maybe killed off their entire family or even their whole hometown, so they’re free to go off revenging or exploring or questing or whatever without having all those pesky relationships to deal with? Although Fitz is (effectively) an orphan, and one who at least some of the time actively believes he seeks solitude and freedom from these exact entanglements, it is a tribute to Hobb’s understanding of humanity and the common themes of society that he fails at this so regularly and spectacularly at this. I mean, the poor bastard can’t even escape the repercussions of grandchildren of people he let down 30 years before coming in to have a dig, let alone the full gamut of (often… mostly) well meaning interferences and expectations of his family. Nor does Hobb fail to explore the different kinds of feelings and interactions he has with a range of characters, and the differences in how he has interacted in his different roles – child, assassin, tool, warrior, strategist, husband, father, friend…It gives his character and the world a level of realism about the core of what makes us human. Looking for realism in fantasy? You’ll find it in extensive connections of all kinds, and not in convenience.

And all of these consequences – consequences from actions, inactions, interactions – are what create the fear. Reading these books is an exercise in increasing tension. Imagine someone is very carefully binding you up – starting with something small – dental floss around your little toe, round and round, then your other toes, one at a time, and it’s uncomfortable but it’s not painful, just THERE, then it’s your other foot, the whole feet, and your ankles, and it’s getting tighter. Now it’s unnerving, and the tension is constricting you. It’s up to your calves and the anticipation is making it worse; you know it’s going to continue, and you can see where it’s going. But you’re being carried along with the careful rhythm and symmetry of the binding: circling, circling, tightening. Sometimes the thread is harsher – fishing line, steel wool – and it cuts in, and you’re afraid all the time as it keeps winding round and round. Sometimes the thread will go the other way, and it’s suddenly a silken wrap, looping your waist gently, giving you a moment of respite. But even while you’re enjoying those moments the dread doesn’t abate, and sure enough, it’s a short respite. By the end of the book you’re head to toe, constricted, dragged inevitably to a conclusion.

The tension is built in various ways. Often, it’s crafted from the contrast between your awareness and Fitz’s – warning signs you catch that he misses, advice you want to scream at him to heed, decisions characters make that you know they will make (because you KNOW these characters, I mean, you really know them like they’re facets of yourself, by now) and you know will be wrong. Sometimes it’s from direct portents gifted to us in the text (a story referenced within the story, or insight from the extracts at the beginning of each chapter). Sometimes it’s just from experience of Fitz’s world that makes you distrust and question everything. The pervading dread is masterfully handled and balanced with lighter moments — smatterings of humour in banter between characters, glimpses of precision insight into a new animal’s character,** or Fitz’s ongoing and bitter war with clothes in general and buttons specifically. Occasionally Hobb gives you a few moments of genuinely unexpected joyful payoff as old wrongs are put right.

Usually, the ending of each novel ends with the final tugging of either end, and all the binding falling away (sometimes it leaves scars, some that can still trigger pain to touch more than a decade after you first read them). In these last two books, she has left us bound up with effective cliffhanger endings so that we get to carry the memory of all that tension around until the next book comes out. There is no space for relaxation or, god forbid, boredom, in these books. You have to pay attention so you don’t miss the many, many pieces she’s juggling and which ones fit together as they fall, but some part of you is always afraid to do so.

So when I hear Hobb’s work described as ‘slow’ or even ‘glacial’*** I just want to reach into the computer and give the other person a virtual shake and demand to know how they could get it so wrong? To say that the pace of the books is slow is to imply that there is time wasted, words spent that don’t contribute to the story, scenes that take too long. It isn’t true. Unlike this blog post, they’re exactly the pace they need to be. Nothing is there that doesn’t belong.

OK, I think I have probably ranted long and hard enough here. I could say more, and probably will when the series concludes next year. For reasons that should now be clear, I both long for and dread that time.

Well done, as always, Robin. You’re everything I strive for as a writer, and everything I adore as a reader.

* Though they shouldn’t be, ideally – it’s a massive pay off reading them and enjoying the connections between the stories.

**I consider it a non-zero possibility that Hobb is in fact Witted.

***I am more active online than I used to be, which has inevitably meant that I am more aware of other people’s opinions than I once was. This can be a good thing, sometimes. But it has also exposed me to the baffling world of People Who Don’t Like Things That Are Awesome. I know, right? There are people out there who just flat out don’t like the things that I like which, I think you’ll agree, must objectively be the best things! It’s crazy. Sometimes I can be the bigger person. Hey, so you didn’t like Scrubs or Gilmore Girls or Buffy or the West Wing. We can…we can still be friends. I guess. [One of my best mates, whom I shall call Nigel for the purposes of anonymity,**** has managed to remain one of my best mates for 15 odd years despite me being obsessed with various forms of pop culture the entire time and the Venn diagram of our tastes in these things encompassing only the tiny slice of TV that is Broadchurch and Rake. We had a 1:1 policy of movie exchanges in uni where I had to watch one independent Australian film about suicide for every time I made him watch something with sword fighting. Yet, still friends!] But sometimes those opinions are so baffling to me that it triggers a silent nerdrage in my head: such is the case with fantasy readers who don’t rate Robin Hobb.

**** His name is Nigel. I’m not that good at deception. Sorry, Nige.

What you should read today

I mean, if you want. Obviously I’m not going to FORCE you to read anything. Though I’d secretly like to.* I’m just going to gently suggest the following books I’ve read (some as recently as this week, some as long ago as last year) which you should totally go out and read immediately.

I do mean to do proper reviews of these books, because I believe in doing that to support authors (if you like a book, please do leave a review. It really makes a difference), but my crappy RSI skeleton-clawhands only have so many keystrokes in them each day and I’ve been spending a lot of them writing query letters and plotting a new book, and occasionally trying to bore you all with my cheese-related adventures on this blog, so I’ve fallen behind on other tasks. Anyway, I thought at the least I would put a few things here which I think are awesome, and hopefully you will give them a try. And then I’ll nag myself to turn these snippets into proper reviews and join Goodreads or something. Future Sam can sort that out.

For something tense and scary and compelling

I let you go  – Clare MacKintosh

I gulped this one down in one day, snatching chapters while the kids were distracted and then sitting up later than I meant to at night. Saw it recommended on twitter and I was in the mood for a thriller so bought it on a whim. WOW. It was really, really great. Beautifully written and really compelling, and one of those books that really turns you on your head part-way through – reminded me of Code Name Verity in that way (see below, now that I think of it!). Clever and surprising, an excellent thriller.

However… I found it equal parts impossible to put down, and impossible to read, because the crime the focus of the book is the hit and run of a 5 year old boy. A few times I actually had to stop, and frankly I would never have read it if I’d known what it was about, because the subject matter is too much for me. Since I became a parent I have been unable to deal very well with the broad category of ‘Bad Stuff Happening to Kids’ in general, but this one in particular I found SO HARD. Just too close to home. I have a four year old son and I walk with him near roads all the time, and I know how easy it is for kids that age to pull their little hands out of yours or to get distracted and dart away. I felt sick and threatened and raw reading this book, as it dealt with the aftermath of that horrible moment. The ease with which the author got her empathetic hooks in me was both impressive and traumatic. I was not at all surprised when I read the author’s note at the end and learned the writer had been a police officer who had dealt with a hit and run of a little boy early in her career, and that she had also lost her own son. Visceral, painful, wonderful writing, both emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

This is both a pro and a con for I let you go – I recommend it highly, but I warn you that if you have trouble dealing with things that force you to imagine (and then feel, over and over) what it would be like to lose your child, then maybe give this one a miss.

For something funny that makes you wish you were friends with the author

Back Story and Thinking about it only makes it worse by David Mitchell

Back Story is the memoir (though that makes it sound poncier than it is) and TAAOMIW** is a collection of his articles from the Guardian. They’re both awesome, but since I’d read most of the Guardian articles as they came out, Back Story was more fun to read because it was all new laughs.*** Essentially it’s a sort of life story hanging off the frame of a narrated walk around London, and it’s funny and lighthearted and occasionally poignant and insightful. His anecdotes about childhood resonated very well with my own 80s middle class nice-but-boring sort of childhood and I share a lot of his stupid neuroses so it made me keep thinking YES I WOULD TOTALLY HAVE BEEN FRIENDS WITH YOU which is an excellent feeling to have about a comedian of whom you’re very fond.

Maybe if you don’t love him quite as much as I do then TAAOMIW might be the more accessible read, because all the columns are pretty self contained. If you don’t enjoy his particular brand of angry-rant-but-actually-rather-polite-because-politeness-holds-society-together then you won’t enjoy this, and you probably don’t like ice cream or beer or the warmth of a dog at your feet either, you heathen. Now go watch seasons of Would I lie to you on youtube until he can make you laugh just by his inflection when he reads out the notecards. GO ON I’LL WAIT.

Oh and also:

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Which is another entertaining memoir sort of thing by a comedian who I wish desperately was my close pal because seriously, who wouldn’t want her as their pal? This one is a kind of mix of life story and life advice, I guess? She’s one of the coolest women in showbusiness – so smart and funny. In my head she’s basically just Leslie Knope walking around in the real world, just with harder edges and a lot more swearing. I love her. Although the book, like (the also awesome) Tina Fey’s Bossypants from a few years ago, isn’t truly a memoir in that it jumps around a fair bit and avoids a few personal areas of her life, you do still get enough of a flavour of her life. She’s very open about her shortcomings – there’s a couple of anecdotes included about mistakes she made in which she does not come off well – but it’s apparent that she knows how to use mistakes to change and grow. Verdict: OK she’s not really Leslie Knope but she’s totally brilliant and I still wish she was my friend.

For the best fantasy of the year*** (and also some from earlier I missed)

This is my most-read category so I’m going to narrow it down to a few things I read last year even though there is a stack.

City of Stairs – Robert J Bennett

RJB is my new author-crush. I’d never heard of him until I finally gave in and joined twitter last year, and quickly stumbled on his feed because he spends a lot of time having a great deal of fun with a bunch of other authors I like. He’s hilarious. If you enjoy silliness on twitter (and why wouldn’t you) then you should be following him – and Sam Sykes, Wes Chu, Myke Cole, Joe Abercrombie, Chuck Wendig and Brian McClellan for that matter. This entire post is starting to turn into a list of people I wish I was friends with…

Anyway, I was looking forward to City of Stairs because he’d mentioned it was ostensibly fantasy but really a mystery, and since that’s what I’d written and was shortly to start shopping, I was desperately searching for appropriate comp titles. Hurray for a nice timely one falling in my lap! Also: PRAISE SANTA IT IS GOOD. Like, really good. Book-of-the-year good. It’s a spy thriller/mystery in fantasy clothes, and seriously those clothes are fucking fabulous. No pseudo Western European medieval periods in this. It’s completely fresh, blazingly original, tense, clever and compelling.

These are mini reviews so I won’t try to summarise the plot – but the general premise is that the MC Shara and her show-stealing sidekick Sigrud are sent to investigate the murder of a scholar in a colonial outpost city. The half-collapsed, struggling city of Bulikov once relied on the power of Gods to function, but Shara’s ancestors killed the Gods and left the once dominant culture subjugated to her own. The cultural clashes that come from colonisation, the reversal of fortunes of the different groups and the attempts to suppress cultural identity form a rich backdrop to the evolving mystery.

Characters, world building, pacing and prose are all top notch. Go read this.

The Gentleman Bastard books – Scott Lynch

This one’s a cheat because the Lies of Locke Lamora came out in like 2008 or something and it’s only the third one that came out last year. I was a latecomer to these books. I don’t know how I missed them. But I finished TLoLL in one sitting and then had a massive sulk about how anyone could have written a debut that good, that young. It’s pretty much everything there is to like about classic epic fantasy. Do you like a good heist? I love a good heist, and all 3 books have that flavour – they’re fast paced, whip-smart, stuffed full of witty banter between the cast of loveable rogues. I’m using a lot of clichés here and the book does use a number of classic fantasy tropes. It just uses them how they’re meant to be used, with the best possible effect.

Locke Lamora is a member of the Gentlemen Bastards, a secret group of thieves/conmen masquerading as priests, running complicated scams on the upper classes. The books are mostly told with dual storylines – one in the past, exploring Locke’s early days with the group and their (mostly fun and successful) heists, and the other in the present, basically following Locke as everything gets fucked up, then fucked up some more, then some fuck ups follow him across the world, fucking up all the way. In this way there’s a balance between the light and the dark, and it’s sometimes a disconcerting one, because while these books are a LOT of fun, they’re also emotionally wrenching in places.

Like Robert Bennett, Scott Lynch is a great writer and world builder, and he’s created memorable characters I’d be happy to follow for plenty more books. I love the layered and complex friendship between Locke and his best mate Jean. And I love that although they’re both men, the books are actually jam-packed**** with women in every role, almost like women make up half of the population, or something crazy like that. Shocking, I know.

Fool’s Assassin – Robin Hobb

And of course, you’re utterly mad if you haven’t read everything Robin Hobb puts out, so you should already know why her Farseer books are the greatest books out there, period. If you haven’t read them, go out and do so immediately. *waits for you to read around 14 books. Gets a few snacks and a cup of tea. Read faster! OK, you’re back.*

Now you get to experience the same longing and dread that I felt returning came back to the world and the characters that I’ve always loved the best of all. Although I always knew the story hadn’t quite ended, I was also sure Robin didn’t have kind things in store for poor Fitz. I can’t really say too much without spoilers, but I will say that Fitz remains the most real of characters to me, perhaps because I don’t think I have ever loved a character so much and yet gotten so constantly angry and frustrated at him for his decision-making. (For God’s sake, Fitz, don’t do [redacted]! Don’t ignore that! Listen to me!).

What I think was so particularly wonderful about this return to their world was the new surprises – a new POV, a new phase of Fitz’s life which resonated with me, a new setting. I also loved how contained this story was, showing that fantasy can be told in smaller, more intimate settings and not just across continents. Robin Hobb stories never shy away from the difficult aspects of life that get avoided or glossed over in many stories. The inconveniences of growing old, the compromises and choices people make, the experiences that change and scar us and can’t be shaken off…

And through all that, the writing was, as always, just beautiful.

So. Although sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes generating dread, and cursed with a tormenting cliffhanger, it was a wonderful read, a beautiful return to the Six Duchies, and a treat that was worth the wait.

This is getting long, so I will pause and return to it later with more excellent things I’ve been reading, including some non-fiction and some out of my usual genre boxes. You’ve got a few days to get on this pile first. Happy reading!

*  Other things I’d secretly like to force you to do include: follow Adnan Syed’s case obsessively so that we can discuss new developments every day in intense and excruciating detail (unless you’re sure he’s guilty, in which case you’re dead to me); bake me all the things that I see pictures of in Delicious magazine but which I never get around to cooking; burn all of my music off my useless CDs and transfer it to my computer for me. OK this is just turning into a list of chores now. Sorry. I hate chores.

** If you say that out loud it sounds a bit like a cat. Go on, try it. Hope someone looked at you funny.

*** By which I mean 2014, because I’m timely.

*** I threw up a little in my mouth after writing that because I then immediately heard it in TV announcer’s voice like ‘Coming up next, all new laughs with [something incredibly unfunny]’. But as punishment for having written it in the first place I am leaving it there to serve as an embarrassing self-warning.

**** Why jam-packed? Why is jam packed tighter than other things? I mean sure there’s no gaps in jam. You don’t open the jar and find it’s like a chip packet and only 1/3 full. But it’s not bursting out either. Is it more packed than, like, a bottle of juice? Or mustard? Or any other viscous substance? I’ve thought about this too much now. This is why the skeleton-claws.