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.

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!

Seraphina ~ Rachel Hartman

imagesOne of the things I really regret now that I am no longer at work is that I haven’t kept up with what’s new in the field of literature for children and young adults.  I’m still an active member of communities working in my other areas of interest, language studies and Shakespeare, but there is no children’s literature department in the University I’m now associated with and gradually my knowledge of what is current has begun to falter.  I would probably do more about this if I wasn’t aware that recent trends in the field aren’t particularly to my taste.  I’m not big into vampires and some of the more gritty realism is a bit too gritty for my liking.  However, over the past couple of months I’ve seen several excellent reviews for a first fantasy novel by an American born, Canadian resident, Rachel Hartman.  Called after its teenage heroine, Seraphina has won acclaim from critics and readers alike and has been shortlisted for several awards.  Now, fantasy I do like and so I put a claim in for this as soon as my local library ordered a copy.  It hasn’t disappointed.

I sometimes think that for fantasy to work it almost has to out realism realistic fiction.  While the world created might differ substantially from our own, it is imperative that we believe completely in the internal logic of what we are reading about.  The setting has to be consistent, we have to be able to see it in our mind’s eye and find no gapping holes in the fabric constructed.  The characters have to be three dimensional and if their circumstances dictate that they behave in ways that wouldn’t be possible in our reality they must at least be acceptable in theirs.  Psychologically their thoughts and acts need to bear witness to their back story and be seen to result from what happens to them as the story progresses.  The plot doesn’t simply have to hang together, it must have an inner rationality true to the probability laws of the setting in which it takes place.  And, perhaps most important of all, there needs to be an unswerving ethical thrust, because if fantasy is about anything it is about asking the reader to question the moral stance of their own society and culture.  Let one of these slip in the world of fantasy fiction and you’re lost.  Readers might just forgive an act of inconsistency in a realist novel (do better next time) but one false step in the world of make believe and the edifice the author has striven so hard to build in the mind of his or her audience will crumble irretrievably.

Hartman does not stumble.

The world she offers us is one in which the warring factions of dragons and humans have lived together in an uneasy alliance for forty years following a treaty made by Queen Lavonda and the Ardmagar of the dragons, Comonot.  But, Lavonda is old and Comonot is loosing the support of those dragons who regret the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and their traditional prey.  So, when the Queen’s only son, Rufus, is found dead with his head missing there is concern on both sides.  Was the murder committed by a rogue dragon or was it the action of the Sons of St Ogdo who, emphatically opposed to the treaty, might well have staged the crime to implicate the dragons and bring the fragile peace to an end?

Into this investigation, however unwittingly and unwillingly, steps Seraphina, daughter of the lawyer most closely concerned with maintaining the treaty and, as a court musician, witness to much of the heart searching and intrigue that the murder reveals.  Seraphina is talented, intelligent and deeply lonely, lonely because she carries a terrible secret which prevents her from allowing any but her closest family to come too close.

And there I have to stop, because if I say any more I shall give away too much and spoil the pleasure you might have if you choose to read this book.  I did, however, want to say just one thing about how Hartman manages to create a world that is so alien and yet so completely real because I think it says something about the different ways an author can set about presenting his or her world to the reader. Basically, you can show or you can tell.

J K Rowling takes up the latter option.  By creating a hero who himself  knows nothing about the world he enters she has the perfect excuse to have other characters explain everything to him and thus to us at the same time.  Think about the scene on the island when Harry first encounters Hagrid. The gentle giant kindly explains enough about the wizarding world for both Harry and the reader to make sense of what the young wizard is about to encounter and what he misses out Ron Weasley soon fills in for us.

Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, however, opts to show us.  His opening words, Lyra and her daemon, thrust the reader into a world which needs no explaining to the characters that inhabit it and it is up to the author to provide enough information, at the right pace, for the audience to build up a picture they can understand.  No one ever gets round to telling us precisely what a daemon is.  Why would they?  They all know.

Hartman follows the same path as Pullman and she does it very skilfully.  To give just one example: the musical instruments in this world include the flute, the ord and the megaharmonium.  Now, I know very well what a flute is and I’ve heard of the middle eastern, lute-like ord, so I am moved from the familiar, to the unusual, to the invented, which I have no difficulty in accepting because it has its place in a set I know and can connect with.  Besides, a megaharmonium is exactly what the word says it is and the noise is superb – at a distance.

For a first novel this is a very well crafted work and I’m only sorry that I have to wait until September for the next instalment.  Which is probably the best thing of all about really good fantasy, it never comes single handed.