Wednesday 30 August 2017

Fool's Quest - Robin Hobb

Fitz and the Fool: Book 2

Fool's Assassin was a leisurely, bittersweet and foreboding but mostly cosy exploration of Fitz's new home and life, up until the last few chapters, during which Robin Hobb struck with a two-pronged emotional attack. Fool's Quest picks up just where the previous book left off, at least from one of the plotlines. But it is a while before primary narrator Fitz is even aware of the events that have befallen the other narrator. The tension is high because of the reader's awareness of the anguish in store for Fitz. Hobb has never been kind to her characters; Fitz and the Fool have been through a ridiculous amount of suffering through the course of three trilogies, but now Fitz finds himself caught between the only two people who could come near to testing his loyalty to the other.

After nearly the entire length of a book waiting for Fitz and the Fool's reunion, Hobb reminds us of the old cliche, be careful what you wish for. For the Fool has changed. It is devastating to see this beloved character broken by his experiences in his years apart from Fitz. The Fool is alternately pitiful and aggravating, and trauma has emphasised his worst traits. He has always been stubborn, when it comes to his sense of his role in a higher purpose, but now, he comes across as hard-headed, manipulative, self-absorbed. It's forgivable, given his desperate circumstances, and a natural evolution of the character of the previous books, but still hard to read without wanting to shake some sense into him. And yet, through it all, Fitz and the Fool's relationship is what gives the book its heart. It's far from being the only important relationship; Robin Hobb's strength is that her characters have multi-faceted lives, and despite his quiet existence, Fitz has built up a lifetime's worth of close friends and family, all of whom come together to make him who he is. But there is no love like that between Fitz and the Fool, and Hobb gradually reveals just how powerful that love is.

Amid the frustration with certain characters, and the anxiety for those whose fates are unknown, there are a few moments of joy. Hobb finally presents Fitz with a moment of triumph that has been withheld from him since the beginning of his tale - just so he can be fall the furthest from his highest peak to his greatest despair. And when that happens, watch out world! FitzChivalry Farseer is on the loose, and he is furious!

Fitz has been many people over the course of the series: stable-boy, assassin in the shadows, royal page-boy, outcast, wolf's companion, soldier, husband. Respectability, however, has never come easily to him. He has always had a wild streak, and at this point in his life, when he is expected to be on his politest behaviour, his wildness breaks out like never before. And it is terrifying to behold.

Fool's Quest is relentless, the darkest book of the series so far. In a series starting with Assassin's Apprentice, you can expect dubious morality, grey areas, but really, assassinations were never the focus of any of the stories. And when they were, there was a strict code of professionalism (if that makes it any more palatable.) There was violence, there were battles, there was self-defence or defence of the realm or mercy-killings. But Fool's Quest is the start of a revenge narrative, and that doesn't sit well with me. From early on, Fitz was taught that his job was political, not personal, but now he's thrown all that to the winds. And worst of all, I can feel the narrative nudging me to cheer him on as he sets off on his murderous rampage, because they deserve it. It is an uneasy situation to find oneself in. Still, Hobb has taken us thus far, and I trust her storytelling enough to be sure that the final volume, Assassin's Fate, will be much more than an epic bloodbath. It'll be messy. It'll be morally complex. Fitz will make some terrible decisions. There will be dragons, and there will be tears.

Friday 25 August 2017

Fool's Assassin - Robin Hobb

Fitz and the Fool: Book 1

Note: you really need to have read The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies to get the full appreciation of this one.

Review contains minor spoilers for previous books.

Many years have passed since the events of the Tawny Man trilogy. FitzChivalry Farseer has left behind his former existence, and settled down to a happy family life in the country, living as Holder Tom Badgerlock of the Withywoods Estate. But Withywoods is not the sanctuary Fitz had come to believe. Strange and dangerous things are afoot in the world, even infiltrating Fitz's own home. So often, the trail seems to lead back to the Fool, who Fitz has not seen since they parted at the end of Fool's Fate, but whose absence is a constant weight on his mind. Why has the Fool kept his* distance for so long? And what can he want with Fitz now?

After the intrigue, action, might and magic of the previous books, Fool's Assassin has a much more domestic feel to it than Robin Hobb's readers may be used to. The plot is slow-burn, taking place over a decade or more, slowly building up a thorough picture of a quiet life in the country. Fitz still visits his friends and family at Buckkeep castle, but he is no longer a part of the political wrangling. His concerns are of his family and home; his ageing wife, his youngest child, the household staff and difficult guests. Most of the book is setting up events for the action to come: Hobb builds an entire new world for Fitz, with just enough hints from the outside world and his retrospective narration to fill the reader with terror for when everything comes crashing down. It's only a matter of time.

A new point-of-view character is introduced, who allows us to see the same story from different perspectives, and to show us Fitz as others see him. This was less jarring than I'd expected after six books with only one narrative voice; I wasn't instantly sold on the new character, as at first I found them a little too precocious to be true, but they soon won me over. I enjoyed the alternating chapters, and the new voice brought a freshness to the book while fitting in as though they had always been there. Despite lacking much action for the majority of the book, Fool's Assassin is every bit as engrossing as the previous titles, and has forced me to put the rest of my to-read pile on hold until I find a way to extricate myself from this series.

The book's title, Fool's Assassin, brings together the title patterns of the previous two series, and begs the question, why would the Fool require an assassin? It is so out of character for someone who despite all the chaos and devastation he's caused and endured, is at heart a gentle soul. And we don't even meet the Fool in person until about the last tenth of the book, although he has been at the heart of most of the disturbances that have come into Fitz's life. When he does show up, everything goes terribly, horribly wrong. The longed-for reunion is devastating; one reckless action has far-reaching consequences, and the volume closes on a cliffhanger that made me very grateful that I had waited until the whole trilogy had been published before losing myself in Hobb's world again.

* I use the male pronouns to describe the Fool here, as although the character's gender is ambiguous, he presents as male in the Fitz-narrated books.

Thursday 17 August 2017

The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies - Robin Hobb (reread)

It can be a risky thing to return to a book series you loved a decade ago. Time and distance can change your perspective; sometimes it can give you an added appreciation for things you didn't spot before, but also there is the danger of disappointment, disillusionment. I was a different person ten years ago, when I first discovered Robin Hobb's fantasy epic, beginning with Assassin's Apprentice. It was my "last summer" between finishing university and taking the first steps into the wider world. I found the Farseer Trilogy in the Kingston borough libraries, and was instantly captured by the narrator's voice. From the first page, I could envision the writer, a world-weary scribe in an untidy stone room, scratching his memoirs onto parchment by flickering torch- or lamplight. That summer, I was swept away into a land of political intrigue and half-comprehended magic in a diminished world whose glory days have faded into shadowy myth. And during the weeks while I was engrossed in Hobb's universe, I discovered that by coincidence, three of my friends were at a similar point in the series. We would meet up as an informal bookclub, with cheese and wine on the seafront, and exchange thoughts, theories and hints about what we had read and what was to come. I raced through those books that summer, not only the Farseer chronicles, but the Liveship Traders and Tawny Man set in the same universe. With the publication of a new trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, I returned to the Realm of the Elderlings to refresh my memory of the story so far. It's been a while since I was really into the sword-and-sorcery genre (Terry Pratchett excepted, if he counts) and now science fiction is more my cup of tea. But I was fond of Hobb's characters, and want to see how their tale concludes.

FitzChivalry Farseer is a royal embarrassment. The illegitimate only child of the heir to the Six Duchies throne, he spends his youth hidden and despised, working variously in the castle stables, as page to his father's widow, and learning the arts of the royal apprentice, the shadowy figure Chade. In his lowly position in the royal household, Fitz sees everything, and there is a lot to see, for it is a turbulent time for the Six Duchies. The country is under siege from outside forces, and threatened by treachery from within. The only hope seems to lie in a desperate quest to dangerous territories. But what has this to do with Fitz? And what is the meaning of the cryptic prophecies by the King's Fool?

Superficially, The Farseer Trilogy, and its sequels, is cut from the same cloth as many other fantasy novels, its setting resembling a medieval society, with kings and queens, tradesmen and peasants, with taverns aplenty. Fantastical elements are quite light on the ground. Magic, called "The Skill" is a trait that runs through the bloodline of the Farseers, the ruling family, but its rules and workings are mostly forgotten, passed on by word of mouth and preserved in scraps of scrolls buried deep in the archives. The Skill is a mixed blessing, powerful but addictive to its user and potentially deadly. There are also other, earthier magics, most notably "The Wit" - the ability to bond with an animal companion, a privilege granted to few and viewed with hostility. Fitz is gifted - or cursed - with both Wit and Skill.

The series is fairly slow-paced, taking time to introduce the reader to a rounded cast of characters: Burrich, the stablemaster tasked with Fitz's upbringing and training, Chade, the cantankerous, scarred spy and assassin. The aging King Shrewd, noble Prince Verity and cruel, foppish Prince Regal. Patience and Lacey, Molly Chandler, Nighteyes the wolf, and the Fool. Oh, the Fool! That character stole my heart from his very first appearance. The Fool is an enigma, a character of many contradictory identities, each of which are completely real. Frivolous and melancholic, gender-fluid, stoic and vulnerable, brave and so afraid, all these elements come together to create one of the most exasperating but beloved characters of fantasy fiction.Whenever the Fool arrives on the scene, Fitz must prepare for his life to be turned upside-down. Their relationship grows from youthful antagonism, to friendship, to a love story - whether you call it bromance or romance - that is the heart of the entire saga.

The Farseer Trilogy is followed chronologically by The Liveship Traders, but it takes place in another part of the world, with an entirely new cast - entirely new, but for one character whose familiar identity is revealed gradually. Although I enjoyed that trilogy well enough on my first reading, I decided to skip it on the rereads, as I didn't feel a strong connection to the characters, setting or plot. However, it does give extra background to the events of The Tawny Man, which pick up Fitz's story, fifteen years later.

The Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man series (and Liveships if you're reading them) are worth savouring and taking time over - and then, when things start to go wrong, you feel the full impact on the characters and the wider world. Robin Hobb makes you fall in love with the characters and then whack you in the emotions, because when things go wrong, putting them right comes at a great cost. Yet Hobb keeps the story from growing too bleak with a light touch of humour, characters who are good company, and a world woven of wonder. Happiness is hard-won, and tempered with sorrow and suffering, so when contentment comes, it is all the sweeter.

However, a new trilogy awaits, and even as I can't wait to reunite myself with Fitz and the Fool, I fear for what else Hobb has in store for them.

Complete saga. Titles in bold are the Fitz/Fool books, which I'm reading this time around.

The Farseer Trilogy

Assassin's Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin's Quest

The Liveship Traders Trilogy

Ship of Magic
The Mad Ship
Ship of Destiny

The Tawny Man Trilogy

Fool's Errand
The Golden Fool
Fool's Fate

The Rain Wilds Chronicles

Dragon Keeper
Dragon Haven
City of Dragons
Blood of Dragons

Fitz and the Fool

Fool's Assassin
Fool's Quest
Assassin's Fate
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