Fool’s Assassin ~ Robin Hobb

fools-assassinTwo 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.

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London Falling ~ Paul Cornell

London Falling UKThere are so many new crime writers coming onto the scene these days that sorting out which are worth adding to the list of ‘authors to be read immediately’ is a real challenge.  In the past few months I have started novels by half a dozen highly praised writers only to give up on them after I’ve failed completely to understand quiet why their works had garnered such accolades. Very few are passing the ‘just one more chapter’ test which is the real indicator of whether or not they have managed to grip me in a way that means I am likely to become a fan for life.  However, I have just finished the first in a new series that had me turning the pages into the wee small hours desperate to know what was going to happen next.

Paul Cornell, the author of London Falling, is probably best known for his work on Doctor Who, although if he keeps up the standard of storytelling to be found in this, the first of the Shadow Police series, that may soon change. You don’t have to look far to recognise the Doctor Who influence, however, because if this highly original novel might be likened to any other works in the field it would be to Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series and those of you who are aficionados of the Doctor will know that Aaronovitch is also a scriptwriter for the programme.  And, as is the case with Aaronovitch’s novels trying to tell you anything about the plot of London Falling is going to be like trying to get you to believe six impossible things before breakfast every morning.  Nevertheless, I will try.

When DI James Quinn finally manages to pull in Rob Toshack, head of a local drug running syndicate, he thinks he is about to wrap up the case that will make his name.  He is, therefore, more than a little miffed when, during interrogation, Toshack basically explodes.  Apart from the fact that there is blood and bits everywhere (and there is a nice undercurrent of humour here that ameliorates the often very gruesome details, although Cornell is not the master of the one liner that Aaronovitch is) Quinn has to come to terms with the fact that he is certain he saw something come through the interview room wall and cause said explosion.  Compelled to accept that what he has witnessed is the handiwork of an agency older and more mystical than anything the police manual addresses, Quinn puts together a task force that comprises himself, two undercover officers who have previously infiltrated Toshack’s gang and intelligence analyst, Lisa Ross. Their role is clear; not only have they to capture the being who caused the gang lord’s death but they must do so before anymore people explode.  Blood and bits can be difficult to explain.

Having established the fact that they are looking for a woman known as Mora Losley, their investigation takes them all round London but repeatedly bring them back to Upton Park, the home of West Ham Football Club.  There is a legend that if any player scores a hat-trick against West Ham they will shortly thereafter come to a very sticky end and as they look further into Losley’s past this legend suddenly takes on a very sinister dimension. Even the deaths of those footballers who appear to have met a natural end on closer inspection turn out to have died in interesting circumstances.  Furthermore, each death is linked to the disappearance of three small children, but children who for some reason have never been reported missing by their parents.

As I say, some of this is very gruesome, but Cornell’s writing means that you are never that far away from a lighter moment, a turn of phrase that will bring a smile to your face and help to get you over the very real evil that is being discussed.  And, intertwined with the story and its magical apparitions there are some interesting social comments, which again is something I would expect from a Doctor Who scriptwriter.  I could, for example, make a joke of the football connection and say that listening to the results on a Saturday evening will never be quite the same again and it’s true that in future any footballer who reads this book is going to think twice about setting out to make his name against West Ham.  However, Cornell does, albeit, tangentially, explore the phenomenon that is football fanaticism and what can happen when club becomes more than family, more than community, more than life itself.  Fortunately, not many such fanatics have the power to reduce the opposition to blood and bits via an internal explosion.  But, I do mean fortunately, because some of those I’ve met in the city centre after a bad loss would certainly have taken advantage of the power had it been theirs.  I also stopped and thought at the moment when the club’s directors refuse to cancel a match despite being ordered to do so by the police.  In Cornell’s London they are doing so under the influence of malignant magical forces, however, the cynic in me could see the same thing happening in the non-fictional world if television rights and the money that goes with them were being threatened.  This isn’t just a book to read for entertainment, it is book that will make you think about certain aspects of the society in which we live.

Luckily for me I have come across London Falling quite late in the day as it was published in 2012.  This means that I am not going to have to wait that long for the second in the series, The Severed Streets, which is due out in March. In the meantime, if you are a fan of Ben Aaronovitch, or of the Doctor, or just like crime fiction set in London then I can strongly recommend this.  I already have number two on order.

Catching Up and Robin Hobb

37788084343093605_97fq9uva_fIf there is one thing I’ve learnt over the past few days it is that while I love book festivals (especially when they are both free and on my doorstep) they are disastrous to my routine and I need that as much as I need to book talk. I remember, on one occasion, having a long discussion with my doctoral supervisor about the fact that we both needed our own particular ruts to feel comfortable.  I’m not so sure I would go as far these days as singing the praises of a rut, but I do know that being kept from my reading and writing time for too long a stretch, for whatever reason, does me no good at all.  So, I am now hopelessly behind with the blog, with my reading, with chatting away with all of you and with my work for the Historical Fiction course.  What is more, The Bears aren’t speaking to me and there are mutters from their corner of the sofa about changing the locks if I stay out very much longer.  Nevertheless, I don’t regret a single event that I went to and as promised I’ll post about some of them here.

Undoubtedly, the talk I was looking forward to most was that by the fantasy writer, Robin Hobb and she didn’t disappoint.  I first encountered Hobb when Zoë, one of our book group, suggested that we read Ship of Magic the first of the Liveship Traders trilogy.  Zoë was concerned that those of us who weren’t fantasy readers would object to her choice, so she sold it to us on the grounds that unlike so many fantasy novels the central characters here were strong women.  Feminists to the end we read the book with relish and then all went on to complete the trilogy.  Hobb doesn’t simply write strong women, she also tells a good story and there are times when that is precisely what you want.  She also creates a very believable society and I feel as at home now in her world as I do in Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Kerr’s Deverry, so it was interesting to hear how she sets about such a creation.

Most of Hobb’s audience were students who were clearly bursting with queries of their own and so rather than talking, as she said, about things they might not be interested in, she opened the session up to questions from the start and let them set the agenda.  Not surprisingly the first topic raised was the Fool and how she came to create this gender-fluid character who so dominates the first and third trilogies and who will return in the forthcoming Fitz and the Fool novels. Hobb’s reply illustrated what we hear so often from authors, namely that some characters have a life of their own. In the original outline the Fool had just one line but once s/he came on stage in the writing s/he simply wouldn’t leave and eventually became the plot’s catalyst not only in respect of the writing but also in the story itself.

If Hobb didn’t know where the Fool came from she was more certain about the origins of Fitz’s wolf companion, Nighteyes.  Growing up in Alaska where neighbouring children were few and far between Hobb herself had had a half wolf, half dog playfellow.  Definitely not a pet, she said, but an independent minded companion, whose views had to be taken into account every bit as much as her own.  I found that really interesting. There is a history of wolves as companions in fantasy and at some point I think some work to be done on why that should be the case, given that the howling of wolves is so often invoked as one of the scariest sounds you can hear.

We have a very healthy creative writing course and so a number of the students were clearly hoping to pick up tips about how to shape their own work.  As someone who often complains about the ending of novels it was interesting to hear Hobb say that for young writers this is the most difficult part of writing and that you have to learn to close down avenues as you go along so that as your novel is drawing to a conclusion there is only one way that it can end and even if that is an outcome so terrible that you don’t want to go that way, it is the way you have to go.  This linked nicely with a question about how difficult it was to invest time in creating a character you knew you were going to kill off, because, of course, sometimes it is the very killing that is crucial to the plot and if the reader hasn’t believed in the character how are they going to care about the death?

Questions were raised as well about the issue of self-publishing and Hobb was clearly very concerned about the most recent developments in this area.  She stressed the need for a strong editor who would tell a writer bluntly what needed doing to shape a novel for publication and emphasised how much a writer could learn from this process.  She also pointed out the advantages of an experienced marketing department and the benefits of an advance that gave a writer time to create their work.  I got the impression, though, that these were very much fringe benefits; it is the need for an outside critical eye that she sees as most important, as she spoke about the help she had had from editors on a number of occasions.

Perhaps the comment that I found most interesting and certainly the one I would be interested in hearing other views on concerned the difference between writing in first and in third person.  Hobb said that she found first person much more tiring and that after a first person trilogy she had to take time away from that form.  Has anyone else heard a writer comment about this?  I can see that first person must be a relentless way of writing because you never have the option of seeing events from a second character’s point of view and if you’re having a day when you don’t like your main character very much you can’t go and spend time with someone else for a while until you’ve settled your differences.  However, I’ve never heard anyone be so emphatic about it.

But the best news that came out of the event was that there is to be another trilogy featuring Fitz and the Fool and that the first book is already with the publisher.  Now the question for me is whether to get a copy of each as they come out or wait until all three are available so that I can sit and read it in one fell swoop.  I always say I’m going to do the latter, but when it comes to publication date I give in every time.  No self-discipline, that’s me!

The Road Goes Ever On and On

imagesThe BBC are in the middle of a series of programmes on both Radio and Television about music written for film. This has caused great excitement in our house because we are all enthusiastic lovers of the big theme and there is no music more likely to provide fine examples than that written for the cinema.

At the moment we are taking an enforced break from listening to a two hour concert on Radio 3; enforced because they are playing Malcolm Arnold’s score for David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai and I can’t listen to that without crying.  My Dad was a Far East Prisoner of War and was invited to the premiere when the film first opened in England.  But it was a time in his life that he never talked about and I cannot go back to the film in any shape or form because I know that for him it was so much more than a fictional depiction.

However, earlier in the concert there was a selection of the music for Peter Jackson’s film of The Lord of the Rings and listening to that made me realise the extent to which that book has permeated the whole of my life.  I’m sure if we stop and think about it all of us who are committed readers have books like that, books that seem to have accompanied us wherever we go and whatever we might be doing.  For me it is Tolkien’s epic tale of Middle-Earth.

Of course, it helps that I happen to live in The Shire and that I’m surrounded by landmarks that Tolkien wove into his landscape.  I walk in the shadow of one of the two towers almost every day of my life.  However, I didn’t know that when the book was first recommended to me by an English teacher when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t available in paperback and I couldn’t possibly have afforded it in hard cover so I had to keep taking it out of the library on extended loan until Christmas arrived and I could ask Santa Claus for my own copy.  Those same three books, which will be fifty years in my possession this coming December, are still sitting on my shelves, battered and scarred not only by my reading but by that of the numerous pupils and students to whom I’ve lent them over the intervening decades. And, the story that they tell, the characters that they bring to life has simply become part and parcel of who I am.

I have read The Hobbit to successive classes of ten and eleven year olds; I have written essays on the nature of the peoples of Middle-Earth and how their manifestation differs from that of other fantasy authors and I have supervised two decades worth of students as they wrote their own dissertations on the novels.  But more than that, I have carried around with me the notion of Frodo and Gandalf and Sam and Strider and Legolas and Gimli and Galadriel and Faramir wherever I have gone, almost as if they were part of my own character and I have certainly measured my own actions and responses and those of others against the examples provided by the way in which Tolkien explores the morality of the people involved in the epic struggle against the evil of Mordor.

Over the years I have encountered the story in different manifestations.  I loved the Radio version that the BBC made back sometime in the eighties. I have it on CD and even now if I have days when I’m too ill to read I can still get great comfort from putting it on and being swept out of The Shire and onto that road that goes ever on and on until Sauron is defeated and the Hobbits are able to return home, albeit never  again to be quite the same individuals that set out on that gloomy September day.  Jackson’s film, particularly The Two Towers, annoys me intensely in parts but even that captures the essence of the characters and the magnitude of the physical and emotional task that lies before them.  It cannot dull the life of the people that Tolkien created and who have walked my path alongside me for these past fifty years as friends and fellow travellers.  My knowledge of and immersion in The Lord of the Rings is simply part of who I am.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels this way about a particular book.  In fact, I’ve met someone who I know would claim the same thing for Moby Dick.  So, I wonder, do you have a book that is part of your identity in this way and if so what is it and why is it so powerful in your life.  I would love to know.

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I am way behind in my reading for the module on Science Fiction and Fantasy. Not that it’s a problem, because I’m only auditing this on-line course and so can take it at my leisure.  So, while the rest of the students are busy reading Dracula, I am re-visiting Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

The Alice books are part of just about everyone’s childhood.  I suspect that many people won’t have even read the originals but they will know the general storyline and the characters either from Disney or from commercial outlets that rely on familiarity with Carroll’s work to sell their wares.  Certainly, I can’t remember a time when they weren’t part of my consciousness even though, settling down to explore Wonderland again this afternoon, I think it might be the case that I haven’t actually read the books themselves in the last fifty years.

Even in my childhood my favourite episode was always the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, a partiality which in many ways has proved prophetic.  As an adult I love afternoon tea, along with breakfast it is my favourite meal, so I would have been in seventh heaven if, forced by Time, I had to spend my life feasting on the delights of tea (loose-leaf, of course), scones, jam and cream. Although I might have drawn the line at having to move into the seat left by the clumsy March Hare.  Why can’t they all have clean place settings?

However, even more prescient in respect of the way in which my life developed is the way these characters play with language.  Was this an early sign that my career would centre around the way in which the English language works and the fun that we can have with it when we realise its flexibility and the opportunities for verbal dexterity it can offer to the speaker and writer?

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

‘Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. I’m glad they begun asking riddles. – I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

‘Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it? ‘said the March Hare.

‘Exactly so,’ said Alice.

‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

‘I do,’ Alice hastily replied; ‘at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.’

‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seems to be talking in his sleep, ‘that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

‘It is the same thing with you,’ said the Hatter.

The conversation could have been a forerunner of dozens I would have with students over the years, although the best times were always when I was teaching primary children and they would come across some totally bizarre rule in a text book and challenge me about it.

‘Please, Miss, why can’t I start a sentence with because?’  demanded nine year old Mark, one day.

‘You can, Mark.’

‘No I can’t,’ brandishing a book under my nose. ‘It says I can’t, here.’

True enough.  There it was in black and white.  You must never start a sentence with because.’ 

That was the first time I threw a book at the ceiling and shouted ‘rubbish’.  Mark, having first dived for cover, emerged from under my desk and then spent the rest of the year trying (and succeeding) to provoke the same response again.

Then, of course, there was the never to be forgotten occasion when I was reading aloud from the first published form of the Literacy Hour only to discover that the Government ‘experts’ were trying to tell us that if a verb had ‘ed’ at the end it was past tense, but if it had ‘ing’ it was present tense.  Really, I promise you.

On that occasion it was a ring binder I threw at the ceiling, which promptly flew open and showered twenty odd startled students with fluttering sheets of paper.  Startled they may have been but they never forgot what a participle was, be it past or present.

Re-reading Alice has brought so many memories back.  I don’t know if encountering those wonderful word games so early on in life was formative or not but I enjoyed them as a child and I still enjoy them now.

First Thoughts on Grimms’ Tales

The first video session on Grimms’ Household Stories was very short indeed which leaves the scope for writing about them wide open.  This really doesn’t help me very much because it means that I don’t have any promptings to move me away from considering the structure of the tales.  However, one tiny comment has got me thinking.

The suggestion appeared to be made that while the Grimm brothers intended that their readers should think that these were oral tales which they had collected from around the country, in fact they were stories which they had invented themselves.  If that is the case then presumably they wrote them in a style which they thought would mimic that of actual oral tales.  Brothers Grimm, if you’re listening, you got it wrong.

One of the first things that became apparent to me as I started reading the prescribed Lucy Crane collection was that I was used to very much tidied up versions of the stories, versions that had been given a narrative shape any child would be familiar with because not only do they follow the canonical Exposition, Development, Climax, Denouement, Conclusion pattern but within that the more discrete sections are canonically shaped as well.  (If you want me to explain that further I will need to set up a ten week degree level course:).)  These stories frequently lack that level of organisation, especially at the more discrete levels.  In narrative terms, they are a mess.  But that wouldn’t be true of oral stories.  In fact, they are often far more highly patterned and well shaped than written stories because the patterning helps the storyteller to remember the tale.  Even very small children telling you a story recognise the need shape the tale to the listener.  There is ample research evidence of this, although to be fair to the Grimms it wasn’t around when they were writing.  So, I can only assume that the brothers had never listened to a decent storyteller and simply decided that writing tales that were, to say the least, rough around the edges, would convince their readers that they actually had gone out and collected these stories from among the populous.

But why?

I mean that has to be the question, doesn’t it?  Why did they write the stories in the first place and why did they want them to appear to have come down as a sort of folk wisdom?  I can only conclude that despite the fact that none of the tales hits the reader between the eyes at the end with a moral, the brothers did want to suggest that particular ways of behaving were more acceptable than others, ways which presumably conformed to their moral code but which they felt would be better accepted if it appeared that they reflected the ethical path followed by generations of hard working country folk.  If we look at the tidied up versions that have come down to us,  I’m not certain they succeeded.

For example, take the story that we know as The Frog Prince.  In this edition we have what I know is a good translation of the original.  I know this because the original has given me analytical problems for years.  Now, I’m quite willing to wager that the story as you know it has the princess finally capitulating and kissing the frog who promptly turns into a prince and low and behold we all live happily ever after.  Not this version….

[W]hen she had lain down to sleep, he came creeping up, saying, “I am tired and want to sleep as much as you; take me up, or I will tell your father.”

Then she felt beside herself with rage, and picking him up, she threw him with all her strength against the wall, crying,

“Now will you be quiet, you horrid frog.”

But as he fell, he ceased to be a frog, and became all at once a prince with beautiful kind eyes.  And it came to pass that, with her father’s consent, they became bride and groom.

Again, I ask why?  I mean I would have thought the frog could have had her for domestic violence.  However, in this version the story doesn’t end there.  A carriage turns up to take the happy (?) couple back to the prince’s kingdom accompanied as footman by faithful Henry.  Faithful Henry is servant to the prince and has bound his heart with bands of iron to keep it from breaking as a consequence of the froggy spell.  As the couple make their way home they are accompanied by the sound of these bands breaking.  (The prince is very worried about the state of the coach’s axles – practical man, clearly.)  Now I assume that we are being asked to contrast the behaviour of the princess with that of Henry, but my experience is that readers are so thrown by the sudden appearance of dear old Henry that all their attention is drawn to the clumsy structure rather than any possible moral.  We don’t make the contrast, which is presumably why the tale that is so much better known is the one where the princess turns out to be nicer than she seemed and gets her ‘reward’ for finally behaving honourably.

But, there must be something going for these tales, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived, even if it is normally in a tidied up form. Rather than following through the fantasy side of this, I’m much more interested now in looking at the publishing history of the collection.  Does anyone know anything about that?

But, I can’t get stuck here.  I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so I had better get on with the rest of it and see if anything else comes to mind.

More to follow.

I’ve published this here, but I don’t really want to clog up this blog with my ongoing thoughts on the course.  So, while I will probably do a round up post here each week on the set text, I’ve started up another blog Talking Around  where this post can also be found and where I will add other thoughts on a more frequent basis if anyone is interested in following where I’m going.