by Robin Hobb, published by Eos
The last few years, I’ve made a practice of not reading books in a particular series in succession. Part of this is my own growing sense of dissatisfaction with sci-fi/fantasy tendencies to stretch out the narrative to sell more books (see Jordan, Robert and Martin, George R. R.) and part of it is my own peculiar sense of fairness. There are a lot of books and only so much time for reading. If I like a series I’ll come back to it months or years later.
So when I picked up Shaman’s Crossing, Book 1 in the Soldier Son Trilogy, I figured I’d read the first book, decide on its merits, and then decide whether to return to Hobb’s latest fantasy world for round two. Instead I found myself at the store buying Forest Mage the very day I finished Book 1.
A ringing endorsement? Not so fast…
These Soldier Son books are well written. The backdrop is interesting, intelligently conceived, with a real sense of history. Hobb’s characters always seem realistic and three-dimensional, with genuine problems and psychological depth. You would expect nothing less from the best-selling author of several acclaimed novels. And yet, as I plowed through the second half of Forest Mage, I became increasingly frustrated and annoyed with the story, the protagonist, and by extension, the author. Why?
I believe it comes down to action, as in who does the action-ing. Nevare Burvelle, your main character and narrator, is the second son of a minor noble and thus bound for military service. He’s bright, sensitive, brave, and tough — everything you’d want in a protagonist. But he spends nearly all of the two books being led around by the nose like a whipped dog. In Crossing, it’s his father leading him; in Mage, it’s the forest Magic of the elf-like Specks. Nevare never seems to be acting of his own accord. He doesn’t take charge and attempt to master his own fate, confront his tormentors, improve his condition. He simply reacts (sometimes stupidly) to the events at hand. I actually plowed through the second half of Mage with the objective of finally witnessing Nevare take decisive action in the context of the story, and lo, there it was! On page 723 (of 725). Not exactly Robert E. Howard territory here.
This is not to say there’s a lack of emotional and internal growth and action. Nevare goes from stolid aspiring aristocratic lieutenant to impoverished outsider straddling two disparate cultures. He moves from child to adult, gaining an appreciation for the true value of love, friendship, and family. He begins to question his own place in the world and the ethos of his people. All of which is outstanding and a pleasure to read — truly the kind of experience you can only get from a good novel… Yet it all happens to him. From noble homestead to the military academy to the forest frontier, it all adds up to a protagonist who seems more victim than hero. And I don’t really enjoy that trait in a lead character.
True, many of us probably wander through the landscape of our lives with only a dim awareness of the forces that shape us. True, people change slowly and resist change almost as a rule — especially the kind of change that challenge the values of one’s upbringing. And Robin Hobb deserves credit for building that level of sophistication and realism into Nevare’s world. But this is fantasy literature, which means there really is magic within the story. Malevolent, mysterious, implacable magic. The magic has plans for Nevare, so as the reader you want Nevare to do some confronting of that magic, of his enemies, or something. That he barely does this within nearly 1300 pages (paperback) presents a real problem.
It’s too bad the author can’t put it all together, because the backdrop is stunningly rendered. It reminded me of some of my favorite upper level history classes — the ones about colonialism and those fascinating accounts of when cultures first encountered one another. The major themes are there: savage nobles and noble savages, technology and religion as justification for expansion, pastoral or natural lifestyle versus economic progress. The Gernians (Nevare’s people) are analogous to the Europeans of the 16th-17th Century, while the Plainsfolk and Specks are like native Indians, Africans, etc., with magic to back them up. The world building truly is first rate, which is one reason I kept reading.
And Robin Hobb is a talented writer. The story kept me engaged, even as I became more and more annoyed with Nevare. There are interesting supporting characters, like Nevare’s controlling father, his Academy pals, Spink and Gord, and cousin Epiny, a self-reliant and mystically imbued young lady plucked straight from Jane Austen. There’s also an interesting sub-theme dealing with body image and sexuality — not something you usually see in the genre. Should we blame Hobb because the fantasy market obliges successful writers to deliver trilogies and series? Probably not. At the same time, she could have condensed the content from these two books into one really thick novel, incorporated some summary narrative, and not lost a beat.
What it comes down to is this: if you’re a patient reader, there are plenty of rewards in Shaman’s Crossing and Forest Mage. I was intrigued enough to read them back-to-back (although that’s probably the last time in awhile). I am also curious enough about Nevare’s fate and the showdown between the Gernians and the Specks I will likely check out Book 3, Renegade’s Magic in the next year or so. I’m only hoping Nevare will finally have the green light to do something…