Two or three weeks ago I wrote about the phenomenon of the reading obsession and admitted that at various times in my life I had fallen prey to all-consuming bouts of reading from either the fantasy or crime fiction genres. While I still go back to many of the fantasy novels that have been written for children, only two writers of adult fiction have stayed with me from those earlier heady days: one is Katharine Kerr, unfortunately no longer writing about the people of Deverry, and the other is Robin Hobb, who thank goodness still continues to keep her readers in touch with what is happening in the realm of the Six Duchies.
Last October I had the good fortune to hear Robin Hobb speak and when she mentioned that this year would bring a new novel which would take forward the story of two of her most loved characters, Fitz and The Fool, I admit that I offered up a quiet pray of thanksgiving. For most readers who have walked the lands of the Six Duchies the boy Fitz will have been their first companion and together they will have suffered the highs and the rather more frequent lows of his existence as a bastard son of the eldest prince of the Farseer dynasty. Through six novels they will have charted the course of his friendship with The Fool and many, like me, will have mourned when at the end of Fool’s Fate it seems as if the two would be severed forever. Now, eleven years and nine books later their story continues.
Quite deliberately, I went back and re-read the last two episodes in this duo’s story before embarking on the new novel and so what I was struck by most immediately was the way in which Hobb has been able to return to the narrative voice that we had become so familiar with in relation to Fitz. You can move seamlessly from Fool’s Fate to Fool’s Assassin without being aware of the gap of time that has passed since these characters were last the focal point of the writer’s attention. Much, however, has changed in Fitz’s life in that time. He finally seems to have found some measure of happiness with his old love Molly and together they have created a contented family home in the manor at Withywoods. Most of Molly’s children appear to have accepted him into the family, even if, ironically, Nettle, the one child they have in common, still has difficulty acknowledging their relationship. Nettle herself now serves Dutiful as Skillmistress and that in turn has meant that Fitz has, to a large extent, been able to turn his back on the politics of Buckkeep that have dominated his life for so long. If there are any regrets in his life they are that he and Molly have not been able to have a second child of their own and that there has been no word from The Fool.
And then Bee arrives, a child that neither Fitz nor Molly thought would be possible and one that for a long time the rest of the household think exists only in Molly’s imagination. But there is nothing imaginary about Bee. As soon as she is strong enough to hold her own as a narrative voice she shares alternate chapters with her father and we come to recognise what a remarkable child she actually is. Long before Fitz has any inkling we understand that there are elements of The Fool about Bee and so when word reaches Withywoods of an unexpected son who is in some way associated with The Fool and who is the focus of a deadly search by characters from his past, we are reaching for explanations that have yet to find a place in Fitz’s mind.
This book sees the return of many familiar and much loved characters: Dutiful, now King of the Six Duchies and his calm and dignified mother, Kettricken, Chade, still as conniving as ever and solid and dependable Riddle. It is also filled with as much horror and pure cruelty as were the earlier novels, which makes me ask why I would return to the series as often as I do. The answer to that question is best illustrated by what occurs between Riddle and Fitz towards the end of the book. Forced to move The Fool as rapidly as possible to the safety of Buckkeep, Fitz draws on Riddle’s strength to use the Skill-pillars and in doing so, completely unintentionally, very nearly kills him. Both Riddle and The Fool are moved to the infirmary and tended there.
The apprentice healer was back, a rag wrapped around the bale of a lidded pot. The lid jiggled as she walked, letting brief wafts of beefy aroma fill the room. A serving-boy came behind with bowls, spoons, and a basket of bread rolls. She stopped first at Riddle’s bed to serve him and I was relieved to see him recovered enough to be propped up in bed and offered hot food. He looked past Nettle, met my gaze, and gave me a crooked smile. Undeserved forgiveness. Friendship defined. I slowly nodded to him, trusting him to understand.
And there it is. The reason I keep returning to the Six Duchies, because if these books are about anything they are about the importance of trust, loyalty and friendship. You will meet a deeper and purer understanding of what friendship can really mean in these novels than almost anywhere else in literature and it is, I think, a gift that all of us can appreciate. When the Wolf-Father, who may or may not be a manifestation of Nighteyes, explains to Bee about the importance of ‘pack’ it invokes echoes in each one of us.
For me this was a triumphant return to the world of Fitz and The Fool on Hobb’s part and I am left now with just one regret and that, of course, is that I have to wait for the next two episodes in this trilogy to discover how the story will progress. I hope that wait will not be too long.
With thanks to HarperCollins who kindly made a copy of this available.