Posted on May 27, 2010 by GRIM
Available at Amazon.com
I don’t really understand why I like Robin Hobb. I tend to dislike traditional fantasy almost on reflex and her writings are almost (but not quite) regular fantasy. I also tend to dislike writing where the heroes are helpless, tortured or at the mercy of outside forces. I prefer empowered heroes and Hobbs protagonists almost always seem to be at the mercy of outside forces and to take a severe drubbing at the hands of the world around them. Nonetheless, I still like the books and it’s a source of consternation to me that I carry on reading despite my distaste at the tortures that her characters undergo. Hobb’s novels are fantasy ‘misery tourism’, they often leave you feeling sad and upset but the worlds are well realized and if the characters weren’t well written they wouldn’t tug at your heart-strings.
The Soldier Son trilogy departs from the more familiar world of the Assassin and Ship novels and gives us a new one, more technological in that there are cannons, pistols and rifles, but familiar in that there’s magic. The book does buy into some of my hates – the concept of the noble savage and magic being necessarily and irretrievably linked with nature-worshiping primitivism – but the main society of the books to which the chief protagonist belongs, is a late Renaissance culture, hemmed in by more powerful enemies and engaging in an American style colonization of the inner continent, driving out the native peoples and carving a road across the land to reach the other ocean to turn their fortunes.
Through the books we follow the fortunes (most of them misfortunes) of Nevarre Burvelle, the Soldier Son of his family (Having been born after the heir and before the priest). We follow his childhood, his training to be a soldier and his exploitation and abuse by a shaman of the displaced plains people along with his infection by the forest magic of the next native people to fall before the Kingdom, the Specks (dappled forest dwellers). From this point Nevarre’s life begins to turn to crap as he is enslaved and used by the magic.
Nevarre is hated by the noble soldier sons, he is tricked, beaten, abused, his troop is devastated by the Speck Plague, a magical weapon used by the forest tribe, he begins to grow fat – hugely fat – again because of the magic and loses his place in the academy. Forced out along the King’s Road after he’s disgraced and cast out by his family he finds little aid or friendship but manages to sign on as a soldier at the fort and town at the end of the road… until he’s framed for rape and murder and is ‘killed’ by a baying mob, using the magic to escape into the forest and live amongst the Specks, trapped within his own body as an alternative personality takes over and tries to destroy his own people.
Eventually things ‘work themselves out’ and Nevarre finds a peace of sorts but the magic, a living, breathing, intentional force in this series of books, accomplishes its ends through its own actions, everything that all the characters do throughout the entire series of books is both disastrous and, ultimately, irrelevant. It’s a series about giving yourself up to faith and allowing it to dictate your actions.
Call me old fashioned but I like stories where the hero grasps hold of their own destiny and acts as a hero, here we don’t get that, the only heroic victories are tiny, small things that are essentially meaningless against the backdrop of the changing world and its developments. This rendered this series much less satisfying to me than Hobb’s other series where, at least, the suffering of the characters ends up meaning something.
Despite all that the world is well realized and evocative, some of the historical incidents that it references and talks about are thoughtfully dealt with. It just isn’t enough to drag it out of the mire that the suffering of the characters and their essential irrelevance creates.
I keep recalling interviews about the old British girl’s comics and how the writers and editors hit on the formula of making the character’s lives miserable as that’s what girls, apparently, wanted to read and cry over. Things like blind girls at ballet school being tormented by the older girls… and that’s what Robin Hobb’s writing often feels like. I can put up with this in her other series as things turn out right in the end and the suffering of the characters has meaning and leads to something worthwhile. In this series the suffering is irrelevant to the story and accomplishes nothing, which leaves the reader feeling hollow and drained with no payoff.
Review by James “Grim” Desborough