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Werthead

[Book review]: The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb

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The Farseer Trilogy #1: Assassin's Apprentice

 

 

 

The Six Duchies are troubled by internal strife. King Shrewd's eldest son and heir, Prince Chivalry, has fathered an illegitimate son. Riven by guilt and controversy, Chivalry abdicates his position and goes into into exile. His son, Fitz, is raised in Buckkeep and tutored in the ways of becoming an assassin. For King Shrewd, Fitz is a weapon he can use to further the cause of his kingdom. But all Fitz wants is a home and a place to belong.

Assassin's Apprentice, originally published in 1995, is the first volume in The Farseer Trilogy, the first of nine books focused on the character of Fitz and also the first book in a sixteen-volume series entitled The Realm of the Elderlings. For a book that launched an enormously successful series, it is relatively small-scale and restrained.

This is traditional epic fantasy, but one that is slanted a little from the standard. It's medieval faux Europe, but the land of the Six Duchies is based on Alaska (albeit a slightly warmer one) and the neighbouring Mountain Kingdom is more inspired by Tibet. There are existential threats - the Red Ship Raiders who ravage the coastline and the threat of civil war - but for the most part these are kept firmly in the background. Assassin's Apprentice is primarily the coming of age tale of FitzChivalry Farseer as he grows up, gains allies, masters the art of the assassin and encounters two forms of magic: the Skill, a form of telepathic communication and control, and the Wit, a bond of empathy with animals.

Robin Hobb's greatest strength is her deft hand with charaterisation and her naturalistic way of presenting the world. Her greatest weakness is a tendency to meander, to have characters sitting around talking about the plot rather than getting on with things and taking a hundred pages to do what a more concise author would do in ten. These weaknesses manifest much more strongly in the later volumes of the series, however. Assassin's Apprentice is, at 480 pages in paperback, relatively short and breezy by Hobb's standards with both a strong character focus and clarity of storytelling.

Much of your enjoyment of these books relies on your engagement with the main character, Fitz. Fitz is an introverted, introspective young man who spends a lot of time reacting to events rather than taking decisive action (this changes in later novels, in which he is a lot less passive). This can be frustrating, but it is also realistic: Fitz occupies a place less than nobility but more than being a peasant, and this dichotomy leaves him isolated and almost friendless, his position in the world uncertain and unreliable. It is only towards the end of the volume, when he visits the Mountain Kingdom and encounters people less concerned with rank and pomp, that he is able to come out of his shell a little. As it stands, Fitz is a mildly engaging but far-from-compelling central character. However, he does serve as an effectively unreliable narrator: the further things and events are from Fitz's perspective, the less reliable they are. This serves to upset reader expectations several times over the course of the trilogy. It's not exactly Gene Wolfe, but it is an effective way of getting the reader to share in Fitz's biases and ignorance before presenting them with the truth of events later on.

Hobb is a superior prose writer and a gifted communicator of emotions and atmosphere. Although it's not a primary focus of her writing, she is also a good writer of horror: the Forged, people with their morals stripped away to be turned into monstrous echoes of their former selves, are a truly disturbing fantasy creation. In terms of politics she stumbles a little. Concluding events in the Mountain Kingdom are highly implausible and the way that Fitz escapes retribution for the events people genuinely believe that he has committed is extremely unconvincing. Fitz should be dead three times over before the book ends and the fact he isn't stretches the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.

But there's also a lot to enjoy here. Fitz's tortured upbringing, his relationship with Burrich and Chade, and his punishing tutelage under Galen are all vividly (and sometimes painfully) described. The Red Ship Raiders are an intriguing enemy and the Forged a horrifying creation. Certainly the novel leaves one wanting to move onto the sequel, Royal Assassin.

Assassin's Apprentice (****) is thus a conflicted book: extremely well-written with a interesting backdrop and a terrific atmosphere, but with a plot that is a bit start-stop and political intrigue that is rather undercooked. But in terms of emotional engagement and its use of an unreliable narrator, Hobb is a formidable writer. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Farseer Trilogy #2: Royal Assassin
 

 

Winter has fallen, bringing a brief respite from the depredations of the Red Ship Raiders. Fitz, returning to Buckkeep from the Mountain Kingdom, finds Prince Verity working hard to build ships and watchtowers to defend the coast, but everywhere the conniving Prince Regal is working to undermine his brother and pave his own way to the throne. When Verity embarks on an ill-advised quest to help save his kingdom, it falls to Fitz to try to hold everything together in his absence.

The middle volume of The Farseer Trilogy is Robin Hobb's attempt to avoid "middle book syndrome", that annoying situation where a book has no real opening or ending. As such, Royal Assassin tries to work as its own self-contained story in the structure of both the larger trilogy and the much larger Realm of the Elderling sequence beyond that.

In this endeavour, the author is mostly successful. Royal Assassin continues the storyline of Assassin's Apprentice, with FitzChivalry Farseer trying to overcome his status as the illegitimate son of a dead prince and a secret assassin to become a respected member of the court. He hopes to woo his childhood love, but King Shrewd wants him to marry for political advantage instead. Regal hopes to undermine and destroy Fitz, but Fitz's willingness to lead from the front and throw himself into battle against the Red Ship Raiders stymies him, as do Fitz's growing magical powers (in both the animalistic Wit and the telepathic Skill) and his canny support of Verity's bride, the Queen-in-Waiting Kettricken. Events boil over at the book's ending, which features a powerfully emotional moment of catharsis (arguably still the highlight of the entire sixteen-volume Elderling series to date) and setting the scene for the final confrontation in Assassin's Quest.

Hobb's facility with prose is enviable, creating a rich and engrossing fantasy world. Things may not move too far from the medieval fantasy norm and some of the worldbuilding doesn't entirely ring true (such as the vast size of the Six Duchies but the tiny size of its settlements and its apparently extremely low population), but for the most part the world of the Six Duchies is vividly and memorably portrayed. Her facility for characterisation also remains intact, with Kettricken, Patience, Burrich, Molly and Nighteyes all being well-drawn and convincing characters as well as Fitz himself.

Fitz has always been a problem for some readers, especially since the trilogy is told in the first person from his perspective. In the first volume Fitz was a little too passive and reactive and that problem persists into this second volume. However, in the latter half of Royal Assassin he does become more proactive in opposing Regal's plans. He even engages in some very mild political intrigue. It's no A Game of Thrones, but it does up the stakes a little at a key moment of the story.

Some of Hobb's key weaknesses as a writer do re-emerge in this volume, however. Her ability to conjure up the unfairness of life and the mountain of problems Fitz must struggle to overcome is remarkable, but there is also chapter after chapter where Fitz stews in the alleged utter misery of his life - as a favoured servant and assassin with a cool telepathic wolf companion and a beautiful, strong-willed girlfriend who loves him absolutely - whilst not really doing anything. It's still not as much of a problem as in later novels, but there is an interminable middle section to the novel and it feels like a comfortable 200 pages could have been shaved off the page count (already approaching twice the length of Assassin's Apprentice) without too much trouble.

Royal Assassin (****) is a bigger novel than its forebear and one with more political intrigue and action, at land and at sea. However, it's also overlong and suffers the same issues as its forebear but stretched over a longer page count: a plot that kicks into gear only intermittently and a protagonist too reactive for his own good. But Hobb's skills with character and emotion, and evoking her world in rich detail, continue to prove remarkable. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Edited by Werthead

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The Farseer Trilogy #3: Assassin's Quest

 

 

 

Betrayed, tortured and left for dead, Fitz has survived the depredations of his mad uncle Regal and been taken to safety in the countryside of the Six Duchies. Plagued by nightmares and trauma, Fitz eventually recovers enough to swear himself to two tasks: the murder of Regal and the safe rescue of Verity, the long-missing true king.

Assassin's Quest concludes the Farseer Trilogy in a manner that I don't think anyone was quite expecting. The first two volumes of the Farseer series are traditional epic fantasies in many respects, but ones where more overt displays of magic and violence are rolled back in favour of a deeper emotional storyline and character development. Still, with their intrigue, battles, romance and betrayals (if separated by lots of long-winded introspection), there is much of the standard fantasy template within them.

Assassin's Quest is completely different. In fact, it's a very strange book. For most of the novel we are firmly in Fitz's head as he undergoes what can best be described as a PTSD-induced nervous and near-mental breakdown after the trauma he suffered at the end of Royal Assassin. Suffering severe depression and making awful judgement calls (as everyone calls him on but himself), Fitz has to first find himself and restore his confidence before he can embark on his long-delayed true quest, which is to find and rescue Verity. Eventually, after crossing (with agonising slowness and quite astonishing amounts of angst) the entire length of the Six Duchies, Fitz overcomes his demons and gets on with the story. The problem is that this happens some around page 500, meaning that the novel only then has 300 pages to wrap the entire trilogy up in.

You might imagine this means that those last 300 pages are full of incident and plot and character development as Hobb brings the story across the finish line? Not so much. Those 300 pages still meander, circling around major plot and character moments for dozens of pages before landing (and often exactly where the reader can see them going). Eventually, in the last few pages of the book, the author explains the background of the Elderlings, Forging, the Red Ship Raiders, the Skill and many other aspects of her world, but it comes so abruptly after almost 800 pages of slow-burning despair that it feels highly anti-climactic.

In some ways you have to respect Hobb for crafting such an utterly strange ending to a fantasy trilogy, one that shys away from convention and ignores every rule of plot structure and pacing. In many respects Hobb was writing a profoundly anti-epic fantasy, something similar to what Patrick Rothfuss appears to be doing with his trilogy (only with rather less humour), and in its sacrifice of plot and action and exposition for character and a realistic approach to how a real human mind might cope with the craziness of your average epic fantasy adventure, Hobb is clearly doing something different.

But different does not mean good and the thing about experiments is that they sometimes just don't work. Assassin's Quest has fine moments of characterisation (probably best exemplified in the relationship between Fitz and the Fool), some real moments of jaw-clenching terror and some very odd moments of real magical weirdness, but it is also a novel that unfolds with all the verve, pacing and tension of watching a lethargic snail travel thirty miles. The massive stakes and tensions raised over the course of almost 1,200 pages across the first two volumes are effectively handwaved away at the end of the novel: the Red Ship Raiders are defeated off-screen, the Fool remains resolutely unexplained and most of Fitz's friends and allies remain in complete ignorance that he is alive.

Obviously we know now there is more to come in the Tawny Man and Fitz and the Fool trilogies, but on its own merits Assassin's Quest (**½) is an altogether unsatisfying conclusion to the first series, languid to the point of unconsciousness until the too-rushed ending. There are some wonderful atmosphere moments and some occasionally effective dialogue, but overall it is a disappointing novel. Still, it is followed up by the far superior Liveship Traders trilogy. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
Edited by Werthead

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The Liveship Traders #1: Ship of Magic

 

 

 

The Bingtown Traders have grown rich from the use of the liveships, great, sentient sailing ships made of the fabled wizardwood. After three generations of captains die on their decks, they quicken into life. Epheron Vestrit's death brings the liveship Vivacia to life, but the jubilations of the Vestrit family are cut short when it is revealed that the ship will pass into the ownership of Kyle Haven, the husband of Epheron's eldest daughter, rather than to his younger daughter Althea. Furious at this betrayal, Althea vows not to rest until the Vivacia belongs to her again. This resolve only hardens when Kyle decides to use the Vivacia to carry slaves, to the horror of his family.

Meanwhile, an unusually eloquent and cultured pirate captain named Kennit schemes to become King of the Pirate Isles. His plotting involves liberating slaver ships, winning the hearts and minds of the people...and finding and capturing a liveship.

Ship of Magic is the first novel in the Liveship Traders trilogy, which takes place in the same world as The Farseer Trilogy but in the lands to the south. There's an almost completely new cast and setting (one major Farseer character does show up in disguise), with most of the action taking place on ships or in dingy port towns. This shift to a nautical setting is refreshing and makes for a very different-feeling novel to the previous books.
 
The structure of the book also changes. Farseer was told in a first person point-of-view from FitzChivalry Farseer, but The Liveship Traders is told from a rotating POV structure. The major characters are Kennit, Althea, her mother Ronica, sister Keffria, niece Malta and nephew Wintrow, but other POV characters include the Vivacia herself, the beached, mad liveship Paragon and Brashen, another crewman on the Vivacia. This immediately makes for a grander, more epic story as the author moves between different characters.
 
Whilst this loses the immediacy of the Farseer books and the deep connection with Fitz, it does allow Hobb to cover the story from more angles and explain things more clearly rather than filtering all of the exposition and information through Fitz alone. It's a good move, justifying the novel's impressive page count (over 870 pages in paperback) rather more convincingly than the Farseer books, which felt rather padded out to reach such lengths.
 
Indeed, although I've only to date read Hobb's first six novels, Ship of Magic is easily the best. The story is epic, but it feels tight with naturalistic character development of a large cast and events proceed at a steady clip. Hobb's main skill has always been in the development of a convincing emotional connection to the characters and that skill is in impressive form here. We share Althea's frustration and betrayal, Wintrow's shock and hurt at his relationship with his father Kyle and the casual betrayal of his calling, Ronica's uneasy dealings with the Rain Wild Traders as she tries to protect her family's holdings and Kennit's ambitions as he strives to make his people more than what they are.
 
Kennit is easily Hobb's most fascinating character to date. He is greedy, selfish and arrogant, but he also has a fast-moving intelligence and wit and altruistic outcomes see to flow from his self-centred acts. Kennit's ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances on the fly and ensure that he always comes out on top is impressive. Kennit clearly has negative characteristics, but it's not entirely clear in Ship of Magic if he is supposed to be a villain. Indeed, it is Kyle Haven who more readily fulfils that role in this book.
 
Ship of Magic (*****) is an outstanding fantasy novel, and an impressive return to form after the disappointing slog that was Assassin's Quest. The book moves with pace and vigour despite its length, the cast of characters is fascinating, the worldbuilding subtle but convincing, the background politics intriguing and the book moves with tremendous purpose. The ending will leave you eager to read the next book, The Mad Ship, immediately. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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The Liveship Traders #2: The Mad Ship

 

 

The fortunes of the Vestrit family have become more desperate. Their liveship, the Vivacia, has been captured by the notorious "pirate king" Kennit and is now helping liberate slaver ships on the seas between Jamaillia and Chalced. The Vestrits have no choice but to help refloat the mad liveship Paragon in the hope they can convince the deranged vessel to help them regain the ship and rescue their kin.

The Mad Ship is the middle volume of The Liveship Traders trilogy and very much reads like one. The story doesn't really start or finish, instead transitioning from the beginning to the end without necessarily having a defining storyline itself. The storylines begun in Ship of Magic are pretty strong so having them continue is fine, and the new additions to the world - a subplot involving the Satrap of Jamaillia and one of his Consorts, and a new story set in an Elderling city in the Rain River Wilds - are well-judged and engrossing.

However, the novel definitely loses some of the pace and momentum of Ship of Magic, which remains my favourite Hobb novel (again, only having read the first six). Hobb's net is cast wider here and the story, world and characters remain fascinating, but there's also much greater periods of time in which nothing much seems to be happening, or we touch base (again) with the Vestrit family having another grim conference about the status of the lower field and getting embarrassed with a family friend whose clothes are a bit old.

Still, if the momentum isn't quite as swift as in the previous novel, Hobb's other strengths remain on full display. The depth of characterisation is remarkable, especially of previously-annoying characters like Malta who develops impressively in this novel beyond the more stereotypical, troublesome teenager of the first book. The biggest success is in the curious relationship between Kennit, Etta, Wintrow and Vivacia, which defies cliche at every turn and becomes a gripping study in character dynamics, power structures and obligation (Hobb does torpedo this, rather frustratingly, in the final volume of the trilogy but at this point it's fascinating).

There's also some uncharacteristic (for Hobb) large-scale action scenes which she handles well, some more deft political maneuverings and some effective mystical dream sequences which hint at a major plot revelation about the nature of the liveships and their place in the world.

The Mad Ship (****) doesn't impress as much as Ship of Magic and definitely feels like it's a slower, more relaxed book, but it evolves the story and characters nicely and sets things up well for the final (and rather more problematic) volume in the trilogy, Ship of Destiny. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
Edited by Werthead

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The Liveship Traders #3: Ship of Destiny

 

The liveship Vivacia is in the hands of the pirate king Kennit, who has won the living ship's heart with his kindness and rejection of slavery. But Althea Vestrit is not prepared to let her family ship be taken into piracy. Having refloated the liveship Paragon and assembled a crew, she now plans to retake her vessel. Meanwhile, the forces of Jamaillia and Chalced have sacked Bingtown. The surviving Traders have to rebuild and reassert themselves in times of great adversity. But, far to the north, the first dragon seen in the world for centuries has taken wing...


Ship of Destiny concludes the Livship Traders trilogy, the second major movement (of five, so far) in Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings mega-series. The conclusion to her first series in this world, The Farseer Trilogy, was sabotaged by the book being incredibly overlong, with poor pacing and structural issues that made ploughing through it a chore. Ship of Destiny is certainly a far superior ending, juggling a much larger number of stories and interesting characters far more effectively, although some similar issues remain. It does feel like events continue to unfold more slowly and laboriously than they really should, and the book has more endings than the film version of The Return of the King.

Still, Hobb's gifts of characterisation continue to shine with her treatment of her major cast. After being fairly restrained in the previous novel, it's good to see Althea reassert herself as a major protagonist and after all of his self-delusions and justifications, it's good to see Kennit's flaws and plans blow up in his face. However, I can't help but feel that the mechanism Hobb uses to make it clear that Kennit is a villain and not a cool, amoral antihero - the rape of another character - is a little too obvious. Unlike some characters who introduce this idea into their work for shock value, Hobb owns this story decision and follows through on its consequences effectively, which is a refreshing change even as it makes for some grim reading.

The storylines and characters are developed satisfyingly, although as we reach the climax the focus shifts to events on the Vivacia and Paragon and the storylines in Bingtown and Trehaug are completely abandoned. This is a bit surprising as major characters vanish abruptly from the story for hundreds of pages at the end of the novel, but Hobb actually makes it work quite well when we eventually catch up with those characters at the end of the story.

Ship of Destiny (****) is a surprisingly relaxed conclusion to a highly enjoyable and some different kind of fantasy trilogy, with Hobb's fine gifts for characterisation on full display. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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