Review: Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

Cover art for Foo's Assassin

Cover art for Fool’s Assassin

I’ve been saving this one. It was released whilst I was still completing my PhD, and though I had read all the other Robin Hobb books I could get my hands on as they came out, this one I saved.

As you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader, I was done with my PhD a while ago, but I held back from starting on this almost superstitiously. I had put it on too high a pedestal. I had waited too long. I’d struggled a bit with the later Rain Wilds Chronicles books and was worried Hobb would somehow have lost her touch with Fitz and the Fool, my very favourites.

And I’d simply fallen out of the habit of reading fiction. Or at least, fiction that I had not read before. When you’re ill and depressed and stretched thin for years you only risk your pleasure hours on that which is trusted and easy. I trusted Robin Hobb, mostly, but I wasn’t up for as harrowing a journey as the Soldier Son trilogy. Nor did I want to mar this new series with my depression.

But, emboldened by the fact that my mother has recently started reading the Livership Trader books, I embarked on this new journey.

Fitz and the Fool

I say ‘new’, Fitz and the Fool are hardly new characters, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone introduce themselves to Robin Hobb with this book. Not because it is bad – far from it! – but because it is so far down the line into the rich world she has created, and one could not possibly feel the full impact of the novel’s events without knowing the story of Fitz and the Fool from their beginning in Assassin’s Apprentice.

Fitz and the Fool is the fifth trilogy set in the world that we are introduced to with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. Although one might read the Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and Fitz and the Fool without the other books set in this world, the rich interconnectedness of world events and cultures is at the heart of these series, and I honestly recommend reading them all.

To stick to just these characters, though, Fitz is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who had been crown prince before the revelation of Fitz’s existence caused him to retire to a quiet life with his barren wife, Lady Patience. Fitz, meanwhile, was trained as an assassin – to be a tool for the Farseer crown, instead of a danger to it. Possessed of both the royal magic, the Skill, and the forbidden animal magic, the Wit, Fitz lives a turbulent life, events swirling around the possibilities created by his existence. Having been tortured and beaten to the point of death, Fitz survives and continues to serve his king and country in secret.

The Fool, who had once played the role of fool to King Shrewd, was Fitz’s companion since childhood. He reveals himself to be a White Prophet – one who sees the forks of possible futures and works to nudge the world onto a better path, using his Catalyst. Fitz is the Fool’s Catylist.

In book three of the Tawny Man trilogy, they travel to Aslevjal, the icy island where a dragon lies trapped in ice. It is the Fool’s belief that restoring dragons to the world is vital to shifting it into a better path. Together, they free the slumbering dragon, but not before the Fool is captured by a rival ‘White’ and tortured to death. Using their connection and the skill magic, Fitz brings the Fool back from death, but he can no longer see the future. He has lived beyond any possibility he ever imagined.

In fear that remaining with his Catalyst he might undo all their good work, the Fool leaves Fitz to return to his homeland for answers as to what it means for a White to outlive his prophecies.

Fitz, meanwhile, returned to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, who has believed him dead – beaten to death – all these years, and who had raised his child, Nettle, along with Fitz’s own foster-father, Burrich, who had become her husband. Finally reconciled, when last we saw Fitz, he was living a life of peace with Molly and Patience in Withywoods, the estate his father had retreated to before he was assassinated.

Fool’s Assassin

It is so difficult to discuss this book without spoiling it utterly, for there is so much that I did not see coming and which I would spoil for no one. The tale begins many years on from Fool’s Quest. The Fool has kept his word and never seen Fitz since, but aside from this, he has lived a contented life with Molly at Withywoods, watching her children grow up and avoiding life at court and the dark politics that plagued most of his life.

We begin at Winterfest, which Fitz has always enjoyed. A mysterious stranger comes with a message that she will give only to Fitz. Fitz tells his steward to seat her comfortably in his study and offer her food and accommodation, but says he will talk to her in the morning – he has kept Molly waiting too long already. Meanwhile several minstrels arrive unannounced and are marked as curious – Fitz cannot sense them with his wit sense, but he is distracted from them when Molly is taken ill. As he looks after her, the messenger who waited in his study flees and is killed, her message undelivered.

The incident is strange, but Fitz puts it from his mind when no further answers are found. Molly continues to show signs of age that Fitz does not. A skill-healing many years ago has left his body continually repairing itself. At 50, Fitz lives in the body of a man of 35. Molly does not. True sadness comes to him as, though she had experienced an early menopause, Molly becomes convinced she is pregnant, and it seems increasingly obvious she is losing her mind.

To say more would be to spoil things utterly, but the consequences of Molly’s apparent phantom pregnancy will echo through the rest of the book. Especially when a second messenger arrives at Withywoods years later, with a dire, cryptic message from the Fool…

My Thoughts

Ah… how to discuss this without spoiling everything? I will say that the novel starts a little rocky. Fitz and Molly in domestic bliss never really sat right with me. Of course it was to be longed for, throughout Fitz’s difficult life, but it is hardly the stuff of an epic fantasy saga. The first chapter or so does ring a little uncomfortable in places as Fitz and Molly share married couple banter that doesn’t ring quite true for me. However, the novel soon settles and finds its feet and tone.

It is an unusually structured book. Much of it remains gentle, and yet no less gripping. After a little awkwardness, even the domesticity works for it. Fitz as a family man and a father is truly a pleasure to read. Especially as he so longed for a family and children when he was alone with his wolf those many years. There is one particularly long chapter in the middle which would stand out as a structural faux pas in the hands of anyone but a master. Fortunately, Hobb is that master.

As with Hobb books of old, I found myself staying up deep into the night, and towards the climax even reading until the sun began to rise again. It also made me cry for old pains and childhood struggles and that deep connection I have always felt for Fitz as a character.

Hobb continues to demonstrate her unique mastery of the first-person style of story-telling, embedding us so deeply in one person’s perspective that we are as surprised as they when someone does or says something that shifts their point of view… and yet one can see upon reflection all the hints and tiny events that showed that other characters were going about their own lives thinking things the main character did not expect all along.

I loved this book. When I finished it, I immediately ordered the hardback of the next book and downloaded the Kindle sample to read until the physical book arrived.

The only minor niggles I have are that Fitz’s gender essentialism and  reading of women as soft mother figures – Molly, in particular, remains always something of a fantasy for him; the girl with the red skirts as he had idealised her – is not sufficiently challenged. Whilst Hobb’s works contain many challenges overall, and the genderqueer or non-binary figure of the Fool still means so much to me, it’s depressing to read a book where characters continually affirm that such and such an aspect is particular to women, or particular to men, and not see these comments challenged at all. It renders all the female characters slightly less real, for there is not a one that feels like me.

Despite this, I feel not only that Hobb is back to form, but she has brought me back to reading. I find again that not only do I hurt when Fitz hurts, but I heal when he heals, and that is truly sepcial.

Meditations on death

Spoiler Warning: some spoilers for The Dark Tower vols 1&2, Buffy, Season 6, and Fool’s Fate. I have tried to be restrained, but some things were unavoidable.

Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.
– Roland in Stephen King (1989: 2), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three

‘”Wherever I… was… I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. […] And I was warm… and I was loved… and I was finished. Complete […] I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. Everything here is… hard, and bright, and violent […] this is hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that…”‘
– Buffy in ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Espenson (2001)

‘”It was such a good dream. I dreamed that we both died here and it was all over. There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault. They spoke kindly of us.”‘
– The Fool in Robin Hobb (2003: 437), Fool’s Fate

‘O that this too too [solid] flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!’
– Hamlet in William Shakespeare (1996), Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger

I went for a bath after my run today but was unable to find the book I had been reading. I searched half-heartedly for a bit, but my eye kept being drawn to my bookshelves – to books I had already read and reread. The favourite ones that spend their time waiting for me to decide that there has been just enough time passed that I might read them again without finding that I know every word by heart. And my gaze snagged on possibly my most dearly beloved of all the books – the one I ration to myself with the most treasured care: volume 2 of The Dark Tower, The Drawing of the Three.

Long-term readers of this blog will be aware of the deep and complex feelings I have for the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Sometimes I feel like a small part of my mind will always be alternating between trying to puzzle out why it affected me so, or holding it at arm’s length, mentally swooning on a couch and crying with all melodrama: ‘It is too much! The wound is still too raw – ask me in another year!’ It’s a level of emotion that I feel uncomfortable expressing. Like someone who has left the ‘get a room’ line behind and is just full-out having sex on the couch whilst other people look on uncomfortably and wonder if it would be worse to say something now or let you get it out of your system and then pretend it never happened. But I’m kinda repressed in that stereotypically British way. I know other people feel fully confident and able to launch in unabashed squee about their most beloved artifacts of affection without fear that others will laugh in their faces. I want to be like that. But I’m not. So I end up putting these awkward caveats out there when I want to talk about The Dark Tower. It may seem to an outsider (i.e. one outside of my head) that I am being a bit over-zealous. If so, I apologise. I just don’t know how to talk about it in mixed company (i.e. Dark Tower converts and those who have yet to adore it/have never seen what all the fuss is about).

Anyway, as I was preparing for my bath my eye kept snagging on this particularly special book and I found myself thinking… ‘You know what? I think maybe it is time again’. And so I picked it up and I ran my bath and I settled down amongst the bubbles, and I read… Within a few short sentences I felt the old feelings beginning to stir again. I had recently finished The Wind Through the Key Hole – King’s supplementary volume ‘4.5’ of The Dark Tower, which I will review in full eventually, but for now will simply remark that it was not the equal of its litter-mates. Almost instantly my pulse quickened, the old excitement and recognition building, saying ‘Yes! Yes! It wasn’t mere hyperbole – this is a better book, the prose is as astonishingly tight and evocative as I remember – Oh! I have missed you!’ But more than this: I had not gone four paragraphs before I hit a sentence that opened up to me yet another layer of nuance, meaning, connections that I had not consciously seen before. For of anything, this is a book of connections, building meaning from references that pluck on our minds and our associations, our deep, shared, psychological rhythms and the cultural artifacts that draw the lines – the supporting beams of our psyches – between them.

Which is lovely, and all, but I’d just settled down for a bath with a favourite book, and now my mind was racing down the connections, seeing new webs and maps of shared themes, mentally composing a blog post I could not sit down to write until after I had washed my hair. I laid down the book, did what I needed to do as quickly as possible, and climbed out of the bath to beginning chasing down quotes.

The line that tripped off this frustrated wave of mental activity was this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown, he thought, listening to the roar of the sea. Let me drown.‘. It’s an odd line for the first page of your book – a melancholy line, a line of endings – and odder still for a force of nature like Roland of Gilead to think. Odd or masterful. Roland is dreaming as he lies on the beach at the ‘point of pointless ending’ (King, 1989: 2). He has just sacrificed his symbolic son and symbol of hope in quest of the Dark Tower, having passed through an underworld of tunnels under the mountains that might be likened to Hades, or Hell, or Moria*. A change of landscape can mark emotional transition, and he had come out on the other side of the mountain tunnels, following the night that lasts ten years, to lie here, as water (always symbolic of emotion) roils around him, washing ever closer towards his precious gunbelts – dealers of death, but also his way of life. And here he lies on the edge of consciousness, dreaming that it is not Jake who has ‘drowned’ (the man in black had read the gunslinger his fortune before apparently dying himself, and the card of the Sailor had symbolised Jake ‘He drowns, gunslinger… and no one throws him a line‘) but himself. And he thinks of this: ‘Good, all right, I’ll drown‘.

It’s an opening thick with death metaphor and potential of rebirth, but the rebirth is not presented as a gift. No, here, death is suggested as the release. It is seductive, appealing, absolving. Death is forgiveness from transgression and freedom from responsibility. In his dream, Roland can take the sacrifice upon himself and absolve himself of Jake’s death, but he can also shirk the responsibility of his all-consuming quest for the Tower. It’s a peculiarly selfish dream, given that he has already sacrificed Jake, and therefore the burden of responsibility has been added to by the price of making that death worth it.

So much great fiction – so many truly great moments in literature – has centred around this thought. It’s what makes Buffy’s description of what she calls heaven so achingly powerful: death to her was freedom from pain and responsibility. It was knowing that everyone else was alright, and she didn’t have to protect them anymore. So it is also conceived of in the Fool’s dream from Fool’s Fate. The Fool and Fitz are struggling to survive in the ice-tunnels in a glacier that once housed a city and now forms the living tomb to a dragon whose ‘rebirth’ would enable a whole species to be revived. The symbolism of location and themes is strikingly similar to the underground station in The Dark Tower, only here the metaphor is overladen with ice where the gunslinger’s world is one of dry, dusty, radioactive deserts and barren beaches. Ice is a killer, and it is killing the Fool, who is tempted by the lethargy induced by his slowing metabolism, but it is also a preserver, lowering the metabolism of the dragon so that it has survived in a fantasy equivalent of cryogenic stasis. Moreover, prophecy hangs over this scene, too: the ‘Fool’s Fate’ of the title is the Fool’s own prediction of his death in such a place. It is a death he thinks is necessary, but also fears. The death he dreams of is a different one – not the one he has predicted, one where he simply sits down and gives up; a kinder death, but one he knows he should fight against because he believes that dying in the correct way will bring about a better world. A terrible sort of responsibility, and in the face of that, it does seem like just sitting down and dying might be a good dream, if only: ‘There was nothing more we could do, and everyone agreed that we had tried and it wasn’t really our fault’.

This theme of death as a release from the anguish of responsibility is central to Hamlet, as well. Interestingly, the quotation as I have taken it above is disputed. Some argue that it should read ‘Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh should melt’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii). I have always held with ‘solid’ because it more accurately reflected the emotion of desiring to dissolve one’s physical self and melt away, emphasising the ‘solid’ implacable impossibility of such a wish, and thus how bitter the emotion is that such release is impossible. It also makes sense from the point of view that Hamlet has not really ‘sinned’ at this point. He might accuse Gertrude of being ‘sullied’ (whether you think he is right to do so or not, that emotion is clearly present) and when he speaks of ‘things rank and gross in nature'(ibid.) possessing the ‘garden’ in which he must persist, one feels he is accusing Claudius of corruption and a pollution of Denmark in contrast to the purity of Hamlet’s own father. But at this stage he has no cause to cast doubt upon his own actions. In fact, he is rather self-righteous in professing that he alone seems to be adequately grieving for his father. On the other hand, the wish to cleanse oneself with self-destruction certainly fits a theme. Tellingly, in his most famous soliloquy, which more consummately concerns suicide and the release of death he remarks:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to; ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep –
To sleep: perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause; there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make,
With a bare bodkin; who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards [of us all]
– Shakespeare (1997), Hamlet, Act III, Scene i

‘And thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’. It’s an odd twist on the emotion we’ve seen so strongly evinced in the other texts mentioned above: conscience is what makes Buffy continue to fight despite her despair at being torn from heaven; conscience is what makes the Fool and Fitz press on, even though the Fool believes he walks to a much more terrible death than what the ice alone could offer; conscience is what spurs the gunslinger to wakefulness to fight to save his life and his bullets from the waves and from the lobstrosity that is crawling up the beach towards him. Surely it is conscience that makes a man bear the whips and scorns of time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Ah, but, Hamlet speculates, would we not all give ourselves into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), that ‘sleep of death’ if we did not fear what might come after? If ‘the Everlasting [God] had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter’ (Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii)?

The answer seems to be ‘no’ – or at least, many of us would not. Our heroes do not. Roland’s beliefs about the after life seem jaded at best. Buffy explicitly states that: ‘I don’t understand about theology or dimensions, or … any of it, really … but I think I was in heaven’. It is her friends’ fear that she might have gone to ‘an untold Hell dimension‘ (Xander in ‘Once More with Feeling’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon 2001) that pulled her back to life. Buffy sacrificed herself not knowing what would come next, and it was that sacrifice that was honoured and rewarded with ‘heaven’. Truly, it is not death that she fears, she fears life. Her heroic act in Season 6 is to go on living. The Fool is not typically heroic. He fears death, but he would accept a good death, freed from responsibility.

One of the interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is that these genres allow us to explore our emotions on the other side of death – to attempt a mapping of the undiscovered country. Buffy comes back from a death knowing that death, for her, was easier than life. Roland and the Fool are provided with prophecies concerning death, and Fitz has experienced a sort of death and resurrection. The unique experiences of the Fool and Fitz allow Fitz to comment: ‘”See how pleasant it can be, to have died? Once you’ve died, no one expects you to be a king. Or a prophet.”‘ (Hobb, 2003: 647) and for the Fool to respond: ‘”Years later, when I came to see you at your cottage, I thought, ‘surely he will be healed by now. Surely he will have recovered.’ […] But you had not. You had just… stopped. In some ways. Oh, you were older and wiser, I suppose. But you had not made any move on your own to reach out to life again.”‘ Admittedly this latter is not literally a comment on Fitz’ death and ressurrection, but rather that his magic-enabled actions to remove the worst pains from his memories, and his willful turning away from the responsibilities of life, have been damaging.

There is a wrestling, here – in Hamlet, in Buffy, in Fool’s Fate, in The Dark Tower – with the death wish, and a sort of romance of death, as well as the fear of it. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but also to be fought against. There is honour in facing your struggles, but again and again the question is raised as to whether this ‘honour’ is worth the sacrifice of living the pains of life. There’s something darkly humourous in how The Gunslinger‘s famous first line encapsulates this:

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’
– King (1995: 1)

The man in black is frequently identified with death or presented as an omen of death. His attire resembles that of a priest, and Jake describes how the man in black was the last thing he saw before dying for the first time, and how Walter used Jake’s death as a gateway over to Roland’s world, like the ferryman over the river Styx, taking the dead to the underworld. Yet the gunslinger is himself a purveyor of death. This dealer of death actively pursues the personification of death across a dead landscape and death flees before him. It marks an ironic comment on how all of us are racing towards our graves in a battle we can never win. Every step taken in the struggle for survival brings us closer to the grave. Roland may (or may not) be fighting to save the world, but ultimately the tower that is his goal is dark in the same way that Walter, the man he pursues in the first volume, is darkly clothed. His quest to save the worlds leaves a wave of destruction in its wake. Roland suffers under the weight of the death he deals as well as his responsibility. They are intertwined. Every life he takes in the name of his goal is a promise that the goal will be worth it and it will be reached. And at the start of The Drawing of the Three, where my thoughts on this matter began, he has come to a point of pointless ending. The point where the world seems to drop away and you might step into the waves, you might lie back down and let the lobstrosity do its work, you might accept the sleep of death. And the story of this book is Roland’s tortured climb back out of the metaphorical Moria – the black chasm, or ‘black hole’ as depression is sometimes called for its apparent inescapability.

Roland is emotionally deadened at the start of The Gunslinger, but Jake reawakened a rusty paternal affection. In allowing him to die those flutters of emotions have been crushed. In order to return to his quest, Roland must find a way to revive these reawakened feelings without allowing them to destroy him. Within two pages his potency as a dealer of death, as a quester for The Dark Tower, is dramatically reduced. His bullets and guns are wetted – many of the bullets will never fire again. And, shockingly, he loses two fingers and most of a toe to a lobstrosity. When I first read this it was my first encounter with such shocking and permanent injury to a protagonist. I kept expecting him to get his fingers back. It’s powerful. Moreover, the lobstrosity is possessed of a powerful poison, which is already working in his blood stream by the time he reaches the first door to our world via which he will draw his ‘three’. The rest of the book is the story of an emotionally and physically damaged man learning to lean upon and help other people at least as emotionally and physically damaged as himself: Eddie, the heroin addict; Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker/Susannah Dean, the black lady in a wheelchair with multiple personality disorder; and even Jake himself, in a way.

Not that Roland ever becomes a ‘soft’ man. There’s a grim and delightful humour in one character’s likening him to the Terminator, as an unemotional dealer of death. But pulling yourself out of the mines of Moria doesn’t mean a complete personality overhaul. It’s a fascinating journey through different kinds of recovery, bringing drops of water to the stark desert of Roland’s life. Above all it underlines the difficulty and pain involved in turning away from death and ‘choosing life’ (the opening monologue from Trainspotting, ‘Choose Life’ (John Hodge, 1996), can be seen as setting a frame for exploring this, also).

There is a ‘romance’ of the western, and it is a romance of death. But this romance, this fascination, is not limited to any one genre. It has a strong and complex hold on all our lives. Which is why it can hit so deep when a truly powerful piece of art hits out with something that seems to encapsulate the complexities and contradictions of our emotions on the subject. Strange that I both saw, and didn’t see this in The Dark Tower before. But, for me, that is the mark of truly great art: its rich complexities work on your emotions to powerful effect without your even having to know how such feelings were brought about.

*Random note prompted by the Wikipedia article on Moria linked to above, because it gave me chills. Wiki notes that: ‘Moria (Sindarin for “Black Chasm”) was the name given by the Eldar to an enormous underground complex in north-western Middle-earth, comprising a vast network of tunnels, chambers, mines and huge halls or ‘mansions’, that ran under and ultimately through the Misty Mountains… It has been suggested that Tolkien — an ardent Catholic — may have used this name as a reference to the mountains of Moriah, where (according to the book of Genesis) Abraham was to sacrifice his son, Isaac. However, Tolkien categorically denied such derivations.’ Anyway, ‘north-western’ initially caught my eye because I thought that the mega electronics and robotics coporation in The Dark Tower was called ‘North Western Positronics’ – it’s not, it’s called North Central Positronics; I am a bad fangirl. However, although no map ever appears in The Dark Tower books, there are indications that the great station and the tunnels than lead there are located in the north-west of Mid World. The second, and more interesting, thing that caught my attention was the biblical reference. Although Tolkein may have denied it, I don’t think King could have been unaware, given that this is the scene for Roland’s sacrifice of Jake. I have suggested elsewhere that these mountains referenced Moria; I think this evidence makes the reference pretty clear.

Espenson, Jane (2001) ‘After Life’, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3
Hobb, Robin (2003), Fool’s Fate, London: Harper Collins
Hodge, John (1996), Trainspotting
King, Stephen (1995), The Dark Tower, Volume 1: The Gunslinger, London: Warner Books
King, Stephen (1989), The Dark Tower, Volume 2: The Drawing of the Three, London: Sphere
Shakespeare, William, (1997) Hamlet, in The Riverside Shakespeare, Second Edition, G Blakemore Evans et al (eds), Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Thomas, Dylan (1996), ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (pp. 1465-6), The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition, Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stalwarthy (eds), London: W. W. Norton & Company

The Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb

The Dragon Keeper: front coverTitle: The Dragon Keeper
Author: Robin Hobb
Series/Standalone: Series – The Rain Wild Chronicles (same world as the Farseer, Liveship, and Tawny Man trilogies)
Genre: Fantasy
First Published: 2009
Edition Reviewed: 2010
Hb/Pb: Paperback
Price: £8.99 (RRP), used prices on Amazon Market Place start from 98p at time of posting

Plot: The story follows a number of characters as they deal with the personal and wider implications of the return of dragons to the already rich and politically complex world of the Rain Wilds and the down-river trading hub of Bingtown.

Dragons have a complex life-cycle which was almost irrevocably disrupted by an ancient volcanic eruption. The accompanying earthquakes changed the shape of the landscape and the flow of the river, making it impossible for the sea serpents that form the larval stage of the dragon lifecycle to reach their cocooning and hatching grounds. Dragons had become virtually extinct. The cities of the elderlings who had tended and served the dragons were abandoned and lost in landslides. A few precious dragon cocoons had been hidden in the cities, and were unearthed, hundreds of years later by the Rain Wild Traders as they looted the deserted elderling cities. They took the cocoons of the dragons for ‘logs’ of the strange and magical wizard wood, which they used to build their Liveships, discarding any withered dragon hatchlings they found in the process.

But one dragon survived the centuries, and was saved by the young Bingtown trader girl, Marta. On hatching she was desolate to find herself alone in the world, and set out to locate and save any remaining sea serpents, with the aim of reviving her race. But the serpents had been too long in their larval stage. They made their yearly migrations without knowing why, only a few retaining any memory of being dragons, and unable to navigate the Rain Wild River to their cocooning grounds. In exchange for protecting their cities, the traders made a deal with the dragon, Tintaglia, to help make a way for the serpents up the river.

Now the dragons are due to emerge from their cocoons. This novel concerns how the people of the Rain Wilds and Bingtown will deal with their new responsibility, their guilt, and their greed. Although told from a variety of different viewpoints, the two central storylines follow Thymara (presumably the ‘Dragon Keeper’ of the title) and Alise.

Thymara is a reject of the Rain Wilds. Rain Wilders live in an environment of swamp, magic, and acid. They build their cities amongst the trees, as the water from the Rain Wild River is so corrosive at certain times of the year that it will eat through practically anything except wizard wood (and, one presumes, the trees in which they build their cities). The environment has also warped its inhabitants, causing odd growths, mutation, and a low life expectancy. The most mutated children are quietly exposed at birth, in the knowledge that their ‘defects’ will only increase as they grow older, that their lives will almost certainly be short anyway, and that they would be forbidden to breed if they reached adulthood. Thymara should have been exposed at birth, but her father spared her. With her clawed hands and scaled skin, you might think she was well-adapted to her acidic, tree-living lifestyle, but most Rain Wilders don’t see it that way.

The dragons that hatch from the cocoons are as malformed as Thymara. They were too old, they cocooned at the wrong time of year, they did not have the help of dragons and elderlings as they would have in years gone by. Many of them die soon after hatching. The ones that live are weak, small, and unable to fly. If they can’t fly, they can’t mate. They seem doomed. Seeing the state they are in, and hearing of a possible mate unearthed under the ice in the frozen north, Tintaglia abandons the new dragons, leaving them as a burden on the Rain Wild Traders.

But the dragons have a memory of another elderling city, where they believe things will be better. They long to go there, and the Rain Wilders are only too happy to encourage them to leave, but the dragons cannot fend for themselves. Killing two birds with one stone, they encourage the most malformed of their youths to become dragon keepers, and to lead an expedition to the elderling city. They seem unlikely to make it, but if they do, the Rain Wilds will have a new source of riches. Thymara knows the risks, but seeks escape from the censure of her life in the city. She signs up.

Alise, on the other hand, is a rich but plain daughter of a Bingtown Trader. All she has ever wanted to do is study dragons. She marries the handsome Hest Finbrook when he makes an unlikely proposal. She accepts it as a business arrangement, pleased that he has agreed to support her studying and allow her to travel to the Rain Wilds one day to study the dragons in person. She secretly harbours the hope that he might love her after all, but this hope is swiftly dashed. He views sleeping with her as a chore he can only face when drunk, and he is often violent. She believes he is having an affair, but never suspects that it is with her oldest and dearest friend, his secretary, Sedric.

Although marriage to Hest destroys what little confidence she has, she becomes determined to enforce the agreement (written into the marriage contract) that she should be allowed one trip to the Rain Wilds to see the dragons. Although she doesn’t know it, she is in a race against time to get there before the dragons leave.

So, is it good?

I must confess a bias: Robin Hobb is my favourite author. The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies contain some of my favourite books of all time, and her science fiction novel (written under the name of Megan Lindholm), Alien Earth may be my favourite sci-fi novel ever. That said, she’s patchy. I wouldn’t recommend the The Ki and Vandien Quartet to anyone but a die-hard fan, and the Liveship books are not as compelling as the Farseer books they are a sequel to. But she writes the sort of books I like, and she knows how to craft angst like no one else on this planet. I’m not talking about painful clunky Twilight angst, I’m talking about the good shit. Like ‘How much pain can I put one character through and still have a compelling story arc?’ shit.

However. After reading the Soldier Son trilogy, I really felt she might have gone too far. If you want to feel harrowed and angry, that is a trilogy for you. But I’m afraid that it tested even my angst loving heart. For this reason (as well as poverty), The Dragon Keeper was the first Robin Hobb book for a long time that I did not rush out to buy in hardback first edition.

Fortunately, when I finally did crack open a paperback copy, I was relieved to find it a bit more palatable than I had feared. This is not her greatest work, but then, she’s a master of the craft with a formidable record. What’s mediocre for Robin Hobb is still pretty good. These books read well and easily, and the rich culture of the Rain Wilds continues to be fascinating. My only worry is that she is now so deep into this world, a new reader might struggle to pick up the back story – you can see above that I had to spend a fair few words providing context. Unfortunately, I’m so deep into this world, too, that I can’t say with any authority how it would seem to a new reader. Hobb does provide a lot of the background, but it is so rich I don’t know how easy it would be to follow.

Long time fans should not expect to see Fitz or the Fool in this book (although if you’ve read The Golden Fool and kept up with the chronology, you should know that; and if you haven’t read that book yet – what are you doing? That book is phenomenal – get to it, now!), but you will encounter a few of our old friends from the Rain Wilds. The story is mainly about Thymara and Alise, though.

I like these characters. They are engaging and sympathetic, although not above the sort of realistic pettiness that makes Robin Hobb characters so well-rounded. Both characters have had it tough, and I suspect it will only get tougher as the trilogy goes on, but it’s not so unrelenting as to be unbearable. I love Alise as a character, and, although she is not the title character, she really shines through as the ‘senior’ main protagonist, for me. She’s reminiscent of those wonderful old lady explorers, only without quite the formidable battle-axe temperament (yet). It’s wonderful to watch her grow throughout the novel, and I hope that she continues to do so. I hope that she becomes one of those old battle-axes and returns to Bingtown to shake things up (or decides that she doesn’t need to go back at all!).

The sub-plot of Sedric’s tempestuous and clandestine romance with Alise’s husband, Hest, is also interesting. I don’t like Hest. At all. Sedric, although more sympathetic, is also petty, vain, soft, and selfish. His treatment of Alise is quite appalling, when one steps back and thinks about it, not least because he simply doesn’t think about what he is doing to her by having a relationship with Hest, most of the time. It’s interesting to see characterisation like this for gay characters from an author with a history of presenting very sympathetic homosexual (and possibly even transgendered) characters in both fantasy and science-fiction settings. Against the background of the very sympathetic presentation of the Fool, it’s hard to criticise her for creating unlikable gay characters here. Rather, it seems to me that Hobb has taken things to the next stage. She has always been a good author for feminism and queer theory, and I think this shows that she is still at the cutting edge of discussion. I see in this book an exploration of the current debates about privilege. All of the characters in this book are privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others. Alise is a member of the wealthy, educated aristocracy where Thymara is amongst the poorest, yet Thymara has a level of personal freedom Alise could not even imagine. Hest and Sedric are wealthy men in the prime of their lives, yet despite their unthinking cruelty to Alise, they also live under a terrible restriction from the perspective of the cultural taboo against non-heterosexual relations. The power-plays here represent a complex discussion with no easy answers.

That said, I am looking forward to the next book in the series, not champing at the bit for it. This is Robin Hobb delivering the sort of book I expect from Robin Hobb, not blowing my mind. It is worth your time, and I would recommend it, but I’m not sure I’d advise new readers of Robin Hobb to start here.