Robin Hobb: Fool’s Quest

It does not happen often that Leander and me disagree on a book we both have read; Fool’s Assassin, the first in Robin Hobb’s most recent trilogy in her Realm of the Elderlings series has been one of those rare occasions, with me enjoying it greatly and much more than that author’s Dragon Wild Chronicles, while Leander was not terribly keen on it. We’ll see whether we’re still diverging on this second volume of Fitz and the Fool.

Fool’s Assassin ended with quite a cliffhanger, and Fool’s Quest picks up immediately after that, at least on Fitz’ side. It lets readers hang for a bit longer until they find out how Bee is faring, and in fact we generally get a lot less of Bee than we did in the previous novel. Some readers will likely be glad to hear that as they did not like her much and were irritated at a second voice intruding in a Fitz novel, but for my part I rather like her parts of the story both in Fool’s Assassin and in Fool’s Quest – in the last volume it provided a fascinating shift of perspective to see Fitz from a different perspective as he appears to others rather than how he views himself, and in general I think she is a very interesting in her own right – and, considering she also is a White Prophet, her chapters are likely the closest we are ever going to get to an inside view on the way the Fool views the world.

In a reversal of the first novel, we get less of Bee and more of the Fool this time (and this reversal is mirrored in the way the Fool, though mostly absent in Fool’s Assassin, is much thought of and talked about; the same thing happens with Bee in the Fool’s Quest which makes me thing that it is actually an intentional structuring element, making the first two novels in the trilogy echo each other), but it is not quite the Fool we know – he is a broken man when the novel opens, blind and terrified and apparently dying. The moments between Fitz and the ailing Fool are among the most touching Hobb has written and were cause for me reaching for tissues on more than one occasion. And it is not only the Fool who has changed – even more than in Fool’s Assassin it becomes clear to what degree Fitz has changed too, becoming a much maturer man than he was in The Tawny Man, not even to mention the early Farseer trilogy. This reflects somewhat in the speed of the novel itself – just as Fitz is no longer someone who rushes headlong into things but takes time to plan and prepare, so the novel starts out slowly, taking its time to describe to describe the gradual re-approaching between Fitz and the Fool as well as Fitz settling down in Buckkeep.

There is a very strong sense of time passed here – somewhat paradoxically, particularly if you have read the earlier novels about Fitz not too long ago and still remember most of the details -, the amount of characters making a reappearance is staggering and gives the reader (if not necessary Fitz himself who can still be pretty thick on occasion with all his hard-earned maturity) a feeling for everything Fitz has accomplished in his life, culminating in a scene which is bound to have a huge emotional impact on every long-time reader of the series (yes, more groping for tissues on my part).

Starting about halfway through the novel (which is quite massive, with almost 800 pages) things begin to speed up and build towards a dramatic climax which then is followed by a kind of epilogue with even more familiar faces showing up (mostly from The Liveship Traders and the Rain Wild Chronicles this time), and Fool’s Quest ends on a double cliffhanger (the only thing that seriously annoyed me about the novel because I can’t stand cliffhangers and think there should be a law against them).

I do not want to go deeply into matters here as the novel is a fairly recent release and I wish to avoid spoilers but it should at least be mentioned that there is a strong thematic current running through Fool’s Quest, strong enough, in fact, to occasionally threaten to sweep the novel away and drag it under. That is theme is violence – something which is of course all-pervasive in Epic Fantasy, but I don’t think there are many novels in the genre which have given the subject such a thorough and conscious treatment as Fool’s Quest. Both Fitz and the Fool have been victims torture and it has scarred both of them for life – internally much more than externally, in the way they seek to impose violence upon others in turn. Hobb shows how often physical power makes right and paints gut-wrenching scenes of what it means to be subject to that power, most notably in the way women are constantly exposed to male aggression. She does get somewhat heavy-handed on occasion (in particular in her treatment of rape) but overall I think the novel very impressive in that it takes something which is often just taken for granted in Epic Fantasy, namely the way it tends to show violence as the solution to every problem, examines it closely and puts its ubiquity into question. In the process of that examination I thought she did come dangerously close to appear to advocate vigilante justice in a couple of places, but I think those passages are more about showing how violence perpetuates itself in everyone it touches, generating destructive impulses even in its victims who end up calling for more violence and more people to be hurt.

On previous occasion I have been suspecting that Robin Hobb is not that much interested in traditional Epic Fantasy any more – in Fool’s Quest, I think she has found a way to channel her misgivings about the genre and turn them creatively into an Epic Fantasy novel which is also a perspicacious criticism of Epic Fantasy. Needless to say, I’m eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy which can’t be released soon enough for me (and not just because of the bloody cliffhangers).

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