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.