I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Robin Hobb. At the time of writing [August 2012] there are 15 of Hobb’s books in the UK Amazon Kindle charts. So, a popular writer, then. This book was written in 1995, and it makes an interesting contrast with more recent works by other authors, which are far sharper and pacier. This is a slow, intricate read, with a great deal of evocative description, and little in the way of dramatic action at first, although things pick up quite a bit in the second half.
The story is told in the first person by Fitz, the bastard son of the heir to the throne, and therefore everything hinges on his character and the way that is conveyed. Since the story starts when he is only six years old, there is quite a lot of slow development before anything much happens. It does mean, though, that the reader is swept into Fitz’s world in a very direct and engaging way , and Hobb does this very well. We really feel what Fitz feels.
I do have some issues with the plot. Fitz’s very existence causes huge political problems for his father, who is forced (or perhaps chooses, it’s not clear) to abdicate from the succession because of it. The question is, why? Hereditary rulers have an obligation to produce as many heirs as they can, and a few illegitimate ones never cause any grief. A bastard son or three can be relied upon to be loyal to the family without having a claim on the title, except as an emergency backup, so what’s the big deal? They can be sent off to take care of the difficult parts of the realm, leaving the legitimate heirs to run the main show. It’s the middle classes, generally, who have a problem with illegitimacy, since extra children are such an expense to educate or to marry, and might insist on a share of the family business. And down amongst the peasants, an extra child is a bonus again, because it’s one more pair of hands to work the fields or to be sold off for profit. Sweeping generalisation, of course, but still. Now, the king (Fitz’s grandfather) does the sensible thing and has him trained up to be useful to the family, but there is still a strange air of shame hanging over his whole existence.
This is one aspect of fantasy world-building which always fascinates and often frustrates me. An author can impose on their world whatever social conventions the imagination can come up with, so why is it that what they so often come up with is exactly what we find in our own society, sometimes in even more extreme form? Alcohol and gambling are freely available, but drugs and prostitution are illegal. Marriage is a one man, one woman affair. Adultery is bad, sex before marriage is bad, illegitimacy is bad. It’s especially grating when the whole plot hinges on some part of this. The term ‘fitz’ actually means recognised child from outside marriage, so why the agonising over it? But maybe that’s just me.
The story is essentially about Fitz growing up, at first on the sidelines of the royal family, under the rough care of Burrich, one of the stablemasters, and later, when he is brought informally into the fold, as a slightly semi-detached member of the family. It has to be said, it’s a pretty miserable childhood, with no one offering him any affection at all, and he himself is not allowed to grow close to any individual (human or animal). I found it strange that no one, in the whole castle, takes much interest in him beyond what’s required of them as part of their job, and everyone seems to dislike him simply because of who he is, which I found very hard to believe. There are one or two characters who might have some basis for dislike, perhaps, but generally people treat him appallingly simply because he’s a bastard, and there seems to be so little justification for such an extreme attitude that it comes across merely as a convenient plot device, the archetypal bad-guy-without-a-reason.
Of the other characters, Burrich, the gruff man better with horses and dogs than children, is a more-or-less credible character, and the Fool is wonderfully mysterious, but most of them, including Fitz himself, don’t quite have the depth that would make them real. The Fool, for instance, is never seen playing his official role, he simply pops up out of the blue to drop cryptic hints or to help Fitz out for vague reasons. The royals, too, rarely appear except as plot devices. So although they’re not exactly cardboard cutouts, neither are they fully realistic. Somehow, it’s the people of the Mountain Kingdom who come across as the most real, rather than those of the Six Duchies, who range from the slightly odd to the outright barking.
There is magic in Hobb’s created world, but it isn’t well-defined so far, and only pops up when needed to steer the plot. Fitz’s capabilities in particular come and go at convenient moments. Some aspects, for example, the Forged (people taken by raiders and returned devoid of all humanity) are never explained, nor are the raiders themselves. Now this might be something that is revealed in a future book, but in this book it leaves a big hole in the centre of the plot - the raiders raid because they do, and they create the Forged because they do. Since this is a major problem for the Six Duchies and essentially the central conceit of the plot, I do feel it needs a little more motivation than this.
Towards the end, the pace picks up and actually becomes a real page-turner, with the sort of breathless excitement where you just have to keep reading. It’s quite traumatic, too, as Fitz is left to struggle with a huge who-can-I-trust dilemma, with the various stages very cleverly revealed. This is all very nicely done. But then there’s a totally unrealistic ending which is a complete let-down, and honestly, under the circumstances, there’s just no way that would ever work.
I’m very torn on rating this one. On the plus side, this is an emotionally engaging and absorbing story with some dramatic action, a nice degree of magic and a sympathetic main character. There’s a certain depth underlying things, too, with questions about loyalty and trust and families. On the minus side, far too much of the plot depends on characters acting violently against Fitz simply because he’s a bastard, the mysterious raiders and the Forgings are unexplained, and the ending is just too eye-rollingly neat. The writing style, which is evocative without being overwrought, tips the balance to four stars.