Tags: Robin Hobb
This is an extremely strong fantasy trilogy that falls just a few inches short of being a masterpiece. Hobb takes a relatively conventional fantasy backdrop and uses it to explore loss, leadership, and sacrifice. If the third book was a little tighter and more focused then I would say without question this is brilliant but even with the nitpicking it is fantastic, better than almost anything else you will find at the book store. I always have a tough time finding a lot of non-spoiler things to say about great books, so just go read this if you haven’t already. Very strongly recommended.
Reread Update (7/31/05) — Having reread the trilogy, I want to write a more expansive review. As the original paragraph I wrote a year and a half ago makes clear, I really love this trilogy and recommend it without reservation. If you think your taste is remotely like mine, go read it. Then come back and read this if you are interested, because I am not going to de-spoilerify this. Again, spoiler warning. I guess I’ll put in a little space, too.
Still with me? I’ve seen these books impugned in certain quarters because they see it, in essence, as a procedural. I want to make a few observations regarding this charge. First, there’s nothing wrong with procedurals, other than a ton of people are writing them so the standard is high. In other reviews on this site I will say a book is a “mere procedural” but that’s mainly because the bookstore is drowning in mere procedurals. If it’s done amazingly well, as it is in the Farseer Trilogy, then it’s still worth reading, but statistically speaking a procedural is not likely to be worth your time. I’m not going to set out my whole critical theory (or at least, what it is this week) here, but suffice to say I see three areas for a story to excel: procedure, character, and ideas. This is not a complete, unified theory because books I rate highly due to their style (Snow Crash, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) kind of slip through the cracks, but it is close enough. Although I would recommend a book that excels in just one of the three categories, I feel that the Farseer books are superlative in two: procedure and character.
I can understand people who criticize it on the ideas front. There’s nothing new, nothing at all. Hobb takes a bunch of fantasy conventions from dragons to animal bonding to addictive magic and makes them all sparkle. I don’t think that a lack of innovation in the props is a fatal flaw, or else there would be no great literature from mainstream fiction. Some might feel the books lack the outright erudition you get from people like Wolfe or Swanwick. And that’s true, the narrative is told so simply they could, at least considering readability alone, be stuck in the young adult section. There aren’t any elaborate references or metaphorical sequences. Again, though, if these are required for greatness, then we are left with a narrow set of books indeed, at least when it comes to speculative fiction. The final criticism I’ve encountered is that the characters, especially the antagonists, are caricatures. Regal is too evil, Verity is too noble, etc. I’ll discuss this in a moment.
Having set these criticisms on the table, why do I think this is a great trilogy? I have asserted that a truly great book needs more than just great procedure or great character, and this book illustrates why. In Farseer they feed off each other. The plot builds up the characters and then chops them down. Jonathan Carroll is a master, in my opinion, of character and in particular dialogue, but his vague and airy plots never have the sort of urgency that makes the actions of his characters important. Hobb’s characters are in the midst of a brutal crisis and are forced to triage what’s important to them, even triage themselves. Their mistakes and weaknesses have profound consequences on themselves and the people around them. And they have profound weaknesses.
It’s easy to overlook the failings of the characters because the main characters are such good people and the narrator, Fitz, likes them so much. Rereading this, I was struck by how the main characters…Fitz, Verity, the Fool, Chade…all have unexpected failings. Fitz, despite being an assassin and soldier, is almost a coward at times and never able to face up to the problems in his life. His acts of apparent heroism generally come in an unthinking rage (i.e. his fighting in Royal Assassin). When thinking in cold blood, for instance on the road with the minstrel family, he can barely bring himself to fight. Throughout his life he has a pattern of taking what is given to him and enduring cognitive dissonance without facing his difficulty. He can’t stop using the Wit but also doesn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with Burrich, so he tries to hide it and tells himself in the face of all evidence he won’t bond when he adopts Nighteyes. He sleeps with Molly even though he knows how much he endangers her by doing so and further cannot bring himself to be honest with her. Finally, faced with many seperate friends who could use his help (Burrich, Chade, Verity) at the beginning of Assassin’s Quest he helps none of them by choosing instead what is really an elaborate suicide attempt. As for Verity, he is willing to sacrifice himself for his country, but he has no emotional understanding of his wife, Regal, or his people. Hobb hints that his “sacrifice” of sitting in the tower all summer is made possible not by a selfless spirit but by Skill addiction. The Fool, although probably the least flawed character, ultimately puts his love for King Shrewd ahead of his high-minded quest to save the world (he also admirably illustrates how the other main characters are made too uncomfortable by Shrewd’s condition to exercise any compassion for him). Chade is the opposite of the Fool, a ruthless politician who puts his monarch, and the preservation of the monarchy, above friendship and ethics.
The story has two antagonists: Regal and the Red-Ship Raiders. If either were not completely amoral, both would be dealt with without too much difficulty. I can understand why they seem one dimensional, because in truth, for most of the trilogy they are. In the last book, Hobb belatedly provides us a window into both. We discover Regal’s upbringing gave him an inferiority complex, a love for the inland Duchies, and a desperation to rule. At the very end comes the biggest surprise of the book: the oh-so-noble Skill dragons led by Verity and the Fool, though they can physically kill, principally operate by forging their enemies and the Red Ship raiders were avenging the results of King Wisdom’s attack. Unfortunately, not a lot of time is spent on the shades of gray that these revelations (particularly the second) cast over the narrative because the narrator, Fitz, is understandably not in the mood to feel understanding of the people who cost him everything he ever loved. From a narrative perspective, however, the enemies in the story must be completely ruthless because otherwise the main characters’ tendancy toward the status quo would result in nothing happening. Only Chade is a strong enough person to stand firm in the face of anything but the most absolute enemy, and his morality is so skewed he would serve Regal were he legitimate. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like these unreasonable enemies cause any problems with the books’ realistic tone. The twentieth century provides us plenty of Regal analogues, and today’s Islamic terrorists with their impossible demands are a close if thankfully massively weaker version of the Red Ship raiders.
The Farseer Trilogy is a story of good people in extraordinary peril trying to draw the line between duty and self-destruction. Each character draws it in a different place and then has to live with the consequences. This is the background to a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and it may not be perfect, but in my opinion Hobb’s honesty, consistency, and writing ability make it into great fiction.