March 09, 2007

Robin Hobb

I've had book reviews out on the web, mostly speculative fiction, for probably more than a dozen years now, and people who have read them often will send me advice on what else I might enjoy. Usually, I can pick through that advice and find out what I would really like and what people are just trying to push on me that probably isn't my style. Acting on several different recommendations over the years, I picked up the first book of Robin Hobb's "Farseer Trilogy", which is called Assassin's Apprentice.

I had avoided this for a while because I was pretty dubious about picking up another fantasy book about an assassin, having been spoiled by Brust's Vlad Taltos series. It's the same reason, in some sense, that I avoid vampire books, having read enough Anne Rice and John Steakley and seen enough on TV and movies lately that I just don't feel up to another vampire story. I worried that this would be a juvenile attempt to write a fantasy story about some super-cool ninja-style assassin with special powers and stupid dialogue, directed to the Piers Anthony crowd.

Then I read the first few chapters and realized my worries were definitely unfounded. This is a story for grownups, not because of language, sex or violence, but rather because of the carefully crafted plots and characters, the subtle writing and symbolism and the gritty "reality" of life.

Yes, the main character is an assassin, but that's because he's a royal bastard whose father is dead and who wants to serve his king somehow and find a way to repay the generosity of those who took him in. The trilogy starts with young Fitz as a child, raised by a stablemaster who takes pity on the boy, then it follows him into early adulthood while the kingdom around him undergoes all kinds of violent convulsions, mostly thanks to a horrible war thrust upon them by barbaric raiders who have a way to turn their human captives into a living zombie-like state that can't be cured.

Impressed, I looked up a bit more about Hobb and realized that it is actually Megan Lindholm, who co-wrote the very good stand-alone novel The Gypsy with Steven Brust. Hell, if I had known that, I would've read this series a long time ago. I'll have to review that book sometime, but back to this series...

Being a bastard is dangerous, of course. Some in the royal line want him dead, just to remove a potential competitor for the throne someday. Others want to keep him close and keep him loyal, including the king, who sees that Fitz is trained to be a royal "helper" who keeps the kingdom stable by poisoning the odd noble here and there who is causing trouble during the war or various other missions.

But there is also the Fool, the court jester, a really neat character who is a prophet in disguise. Few take him seriously, but the Fool sees Fitz as a catalyst who can change the course of history for the better. And so the Fool gives Fitz advice and glimpses of his future while Fitz is trained to help the king with his limited "magical" powers, equivalent to a sort of telepathic gift. Fitz also has "the wit", which means he can bond with an animal as a sort of familiar, in the classic fantasy role-playing sense.

The books are long, and the plot is very dense. I think I've written enough to give you a flavor for what the story is basically about. It's a little slow at times, but in retrospect, I can't imagine anything I would've have seriously chopped out. There are a few really great villains, and most everyone else is human in the best possible sense, with secrets, flaws, personality tics and unpredictability, even the so-called "bad guys" in many cases.

The first trilogy ends with a very long quest (no spoiler there since "Assassin's Quest" is the title of the third book), and to me, that part was the weakest and most boring portion of the whole six books. I was disappointed that the story took the turn that led to the quest, and I was disappointed with the way it was resolved, partly because I was so fond of the characters who were lost or changed so deeply as a result.

The fourth book (first book of the "Tawny Man" trilogy) was maybe my favorite, taking place about ten years after the end of the third book. It actually served as an excellent and very moving epilogue to the first series. You could read those four books right there and have a very fine fantasy set and be done with only a few loose ends. But the last two are great, and the sixth book ends with all of the promise I had hoped to see fulfilled in the third book. There are many emotionally draining, uplifting and satisfying scences in the second trilogy, more so than the first because it is more "grown up" (Fitz is a middle-aged man by this time, after all), and I liked the second trilogy better overall.

But you really need to read the very good first trilogy to fully enjoy the even better second trilogy. This set of books, like I said, is long and dense and took me the better part of two months to fully get through (which is why I haven't posting many new book reviews lately, been waiting to finish this). Hobb has another trilogy set in the same world called "The Liveship Traders" which I'm sure will be good, and she is writing a fourth trilogy set in a completely different world, I believe, that is just coming out with the last book within months.

I may wait a while to read the "Liveship" trilogy just to give my brain a chance to rest and recuperate, but I will definitely read it and the fourth series as soon as it is all out in paperback. Of all the new authors I've tried in the past few years, Hobb/Lindholm is the best, and that's facing some stiff competition with the likes of Elizabeth Moon's "Paksennarion" and Bujold.

I also note that a lot of the same people who like George R. R. Martin are big fans of Hobb's series, so I already went and got the Swords trilogy by him. I'm sure it will be excellent, and I may read that one next.

Posted by Observer at March 9, 2007 06:58 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

What Swords trilogy by George R. R. Martin?

Don't start his Song of Fire and Ice series

until he finishes it, it's total cliffhanger.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 9, 2007 08:35 AM

Oh. Oops. Ok, well, I bought the first three thinking it was just a trilogy. I see now it is six books, so I guess I'll wait until all six are out. Glad I didn't start the first book yet! I guess I'll stick those on the to-read shelf for now and look for something else.

Posted by: Observer on March 9, 2007 08:44 AM

I think Hummer and I have butted heads over Martin in front of you before. I have two major problems with Martin... The first is that some of his characters are just dumb... Trying to live in denial is one thing, but some of these people are just dumb... The second major issue I have with Martin is that he will spend a long time building up a character and then kill him or her. The first time or two it happened, I could accept it because the characters had enough influence on things to leave a lasting impression with characters who lived on... By the end of the third book, I was just tearing my hair out wondering why he'd spent 200 pages developing a character who was then killed without passing anything of importance on to the story or the other characters... It's like he'd done an interesting character study and wanted to publish it so it got shoe-horned in here...

Don't get me wrong, I think his *universe* is fabulous. The level of detail and the relationships and the politics is very well done. I just find the characters that he is writing about and the way he approaches them in his work annoying.

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on March 9, 2007 01:31 PM

I only got suckered into The Song of Fire and Ice because I thought the first novel was a stand-alone. No, they don't really close any plot points at any point, and I don't think the future two novels will either.

I'll agree with SA completely, his universe is facinating, but he kills off characters with a will normally reserved to Joss Whedon.

Glad I was able to save you from this unfinished series for now.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 10, 2007 12:56 PM

On top of everything else, Martin's publisher has changed the cover art several times and not been consistent with releases in different formats. The first book had a shiny silver cover when it first came out. After vol. #2 came out it was re-released with a grey cover that matched vol. #2. Right around the release of vol. #4, the cover art for vol. 1-3 changed. Anybody who likes a 'matched' set is SOL without selling their old copies and buying the new ones. As for formats, 1-3 were released in the traditional hardcover, larger trade paperback, mass market paperback order. Vol. #4 was released hardcover, then mass market, and the trade version still has not come out (Amazon lists an Oct 30, 2007 release date).

Posted by: on March 10, 2007 04:22 PM

LOL, who wants a trade paperback? All the size and price disadvantages of the hardcover without the durability...

I wish I could get everything in mass-market size.

Posted by: Humbaba on March 10, 2007 06:58 PM

I've always found the Mass Market Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, etc. novels to be just as awkward as other formats because they are so think. While I don't like trade paperbacks much either, I found that Martin's books were a little easier to handle (plus my mass market copies of the first three Wheel of Time books were losing pages by the dozen before I even finished them). Granted, I've long since given up on reading any of those three overly long series.

Posted by: on March 10, 2007 07:20 PM

I've always been a sucker for the oversized paperback. Those little mass-market 800-pagers are too hard to crack open and read, especially at night with a book light. I end up mangling the spine. At least the trade sized books usually have a decent inner margin. I don't like reading hardbacks much, and I usually find a hardback will go for $25 while a trade version goes for maybe $11, mass-market for $6.

I usually end up with trade versions when looking at the bargain shelves. You can find a lot of classics in trade size at "friends of the library" sales and in the bargain aisles at typical chain bookstores, and they're often cheaper than the same current edition mass-market paperback that is already on the shelf in the same bookstore.

Posted by: Observer on March 10, 2007 11:35 PM

I'm with Observer on the trade paperbacks. I like them, always have. I never pay full price for one - gotta love the bargain shelves!

Posted by: Perkusi on March 11, 2007 06:17 AM

I don't know if you're pushing fantasy books on your kids, but if you are, you might look at Tamora Pierce's stuff. She's got three tetrologies and one two-book series (the last would be a tetrology but her publisher let her know she could have a different format) all in the same world. They range in level, all strong female lead characters, and (amen) the male characters are not all hopeless idiots or villains. My 10-year-old daughter has devoured all but that last series, and she'll get to that one after she's cleared some other books in her queue.

Posted by: Feff on March 12, 2007 11:39 AM