Monday, 30 June 2008

Review - The Farseer Trilogy

It took me three years to read this series. After the impressive pirate-fantasy series ‘The Liveship Traders’, I dove right back into Robin Hobb’s work and started the first of the ‘Farseer Trilogy’, ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’. I gave up a third of the way in. At the time I found the pacing to be too slow, the first-person narrative grated on me, and it felt like predictable ‘orphan boy hero’ fantasy fare.

Yet I came back to it, partly on the recent recommendation of a friend, partly because fantasy fans have always waxed lyrical about how great it is, and partly because I needed to read something while I waited for ‘The Name of the Wind’ to come out in a reasonably-priced paperback (it since has and waits on my shelf). I’m glad I came back to ‘Farseer’ but it’s not quite the fantasy tour-de-force reviews claim it to be. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Martin and Bakker.

As always Hobb’s characterisation is terrific. The characters are well-fleshed out, individual, and realistic. They have clear psychological motivations unique to each character’s personality. The perfect character writing is what kept me reading up to the halfway point of the second book: the story didn’t kick in for me until events started to happen halfway through ‘Royal Assassin’ and the only element that kept me involved was FitzChivalry’s interaction with the people around him. While the first-person perspective does mean real character insights are somewhat more limited than in the third-person omniscience of ‘Liveship Traders’, Fitz is so engaging a character that it doesn’t really matter. The Fool is also brilliant, both melancholy and mysterious: a truly unique fantasy character.

The plot - the Red Ship Raiders attacking - felt almost incidental up until Verity left Buckkeep in ‘Royal Assassin’. Only then did it seem to gain any direction. Up until that point the events of the story consisted of Fitz visiting the same rooms in Buckkeep Castle again and again: to Patience, then Kettricken, then Burrich, then Kettricken, then Patience, then the King, then Kettricken... It got a bit monotonous and acted as an excuse for getting the characters to interact. The story really took off in the last book, ‘Assassin’s Quest’. It’s funny that when I started it a few years ago, I chastised it for being predictable but then this time around I only began to engage with the story when it entered into a traditional ‘fantasy-quest’ mould: probably says more about me as a reader than Hobb’s writing.

As the last hundred pages flicked through my fingers, I began to panic. It increasingly began to seem as if there would not be room to wrap up all the loose elements. But ultimately, while the ending did seem a trifle rushed, it was satisfying. In one swift paragraph Hobb managed to explain – and explain well – the mechanism and motivation behind the mysterious Forging. Despite how right the ending felt, I think the editor could have done some pruning to the first half of the third book.

Robin Hobb is a great writer and reading her fantasy is a pleasure. Picking up one of her books feels like settling down by a roaring fire in a log-cabin with old friends. They’re not as engrossing or gritty as George R. R. Martin, they don’t have the intelligence or difficulty of R. Scott Bakker, and the world isn’t as huge or complex as Steven Erikson’s but maybe they’re better for all that. Robin Hobb’s fantasy feels like comfortable Arthurian legend and while she’s not reinventing the genre, she is getting the genre right.

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