I’ve reviewed several Robin Hobb books here on this blog in the past, and I’ve been reading her books since before I started book-blogging. She’s pretty much my favourite fantasy author (maybe tied with Guy Gavriel Kay — I think they’re both criminally underrated by fantasy fans). With the release of her latest novel Assassin’s Fate this spring promising a conclusion to at least some of the major story lines in her “Realm of the Elderlings” cycle, if not to the entire series, I decided to embark on a massive re-read of all these interconnected books. I had read them all over a period of about fifteen years, widely spaced apart and sometimes out of order, and I really wanted to get the experience of reading the whole cycle in order so that all the characters and plot threads would be fresh in my mind when I came to reading Assassin’s Fate. It turned out to be a wonderful two-month immersion in an intricately-constructed, lovingly detailed fantasy world.
Note: in the paragraphs below I’ve tried to give an overview of this series and why I love it, with as few spoilers as possible. I can’t promise NO spoilers whatsoever, but I’ve made as much effort as I can to tell you enough about this series to whet your appetite without ruining any major plot points (I hope). However, if you’re in the midst of reading these books and you’re super-sensitive to even the vaguest spoilers, proceed with caution!
The series (or series of series, really) includes three trilogies set in a country called the Six Duchies and focused around a central character, the first-person narrator FitzChivalry Farseer. The “Assassin” trilogy follows Fitz, bastard son of a prince, from childhood to young manhood as he finds an uneasy role for himself in Buckkeep Castle, finds and loses his first love Molly, and forges his own identity in a land beseiged by invaders from without and usurpers within. The second trilogy, the “Tawny Man” series, catches up with Fitz in his thirties, some fifteen years after the end of the first trilogy, when he returns to Buckkeep and to public life in disguise to aid the realm and the royal family in a time of crisis. That series ends with Fitz in what should be a happy-ending retirement (more or less happy; nothing is ever simple in these books), but the third trilogy, “Fitz and the Fool,” pulls him out of his rural idyll when his own family is the victim of an unthinkable crime and an old friend reappears to lead him on a quest for vengeance.
Interspersed chronologically between the three trilogies (you can see the proper order of the books in the graphic above) are two other series that at first glance appear to be unrelated, though set in the same world. The “Liveship Traders” trilogy, falling in time between the “Assassin” and “Tawny Man” books, deals with the Vestrit family of Bingtown Traders and their magical talking ship — one of a group of mysterious, sentient “liveships” that have enabled the Bingtown Traders to become some of the wealthiest merchants in their world. As headstrong Althea Vestrit tries to prove she’s as worth to captain a ship as any man is, forces from the world outside threaten the whole way of life of the Bingtown Traders and change their society forever.
The impact of those changes shows up in the other series that fits in between the “Tawny Man” and “Fitz and the Fool” books. This is a tetralogy called the “Rain Wild Chronicles,” and it’s the one series that deals most directly with the overarching theme that ties all these books together: the return of dragons to the world. At the beginning of the first Assassin books, dragons are an ancient, mythical memory, just as they are in our world. By the end of the last series, the dragons are back, an intelligent species living (often uneasily) alongside humans, challenging humanity’s unthinking assumptions of superiority, and demanding their space in the ecosystem. How, exactly, the dragons (and the semi-human race of Elderlings who are closely linked to them) make a comeback is detailed in the Rain Wild books.
So that’s the overview — a vast cycle of sixteen books set in different countries around the same world, with characters from the various series interacting and making cameo appearances in each others’ books, covering fifty years of war, trade, intrigue, politics, and, yes, dragons. While FitzChivalry Farseer is the most frequent point of view character, being the narrator of nine of the books, the whole series is packed with vividly realized, interesting, flawed characters that I, as a reader, cared passionately about. Robin Hobb does character-building, as she does world-building, in a way few if any fantasy writers can hope to equal.
Along with memorable characters, great world-building, and page-turning plots, Hobb and her characters wrestle with a lot of big issues. Feminist questions are big here, and the role of women is believably different in the different countries and cultures depicted in the books. In the Six Duchies, women can do pretty much anything men can do: rule a duchy or the whole kingdom, serve in the military, pursue a trade, practice the royal magic known as “the Skill.” In Bingtown things are different: Bingtown women in the early days of settlement worked alongside and equal to men, but by the time the Liveship trilogy opens, restricted roles for women have become a sign of peace and prosperity. Althea has to fight not only her own family but all Bingtown society to seize the role she believes is hers by right, as captain of the liveship Vivacia. Meanwhile, in the menacing neighbour country of Chalced (always the bad guy in these stories), women live in almost harem-like seclusion, allowed little to no role in public life at all.
LGBT issues are also front and centre in these books, though never in a preachy way. A major character throughout the whole series is someone we would probably call today gender-fluid: when we first meet this character we assume, as Fitz does, that they’re male, but later we see the same character presenting to others as female, and as the series and our knowledge of this character unfolds we’re forced to question how much gender really matters to our essential understanding of who a person is. There’s a beautiful gay love story at the heart of the Rain Wilds books (as well as an appallingly abusive and cruel gay relationship, because Hobb doesn’t idealize gay characters anymore than she does straight ones). And there’s also more than a metaphorical glance at LGBT questions in the way people in the Six Duchies stories react to a particular strain of magic that shows up in some characters, Fitz include. The struggle for people who have “the Wit” (a magic that allows them to understand and silently converse with animals) to be accepted into mainstream society, closely mirrors the struggle for acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships in our world, even though there’s definitely nothing sexual about the Wit.
The overarching storyline about dragons that ties the sixteen books together also raises deep and interesting questions. For several characters in these books, bringing dragons back into the world, protecting and serving them so that they can rule the skies again, is unquestionably the right thing to do, a goal that must be given priority over every merely human concern, including winning wars and making money. But to other characters — and, sometimes, to the reader — the value of this isn’t always self-evident, because, to be frank, dragons can be kind of jerks. They demand an allegiance that’s close to worship; they don’t negotiate or cut deals; they assume they have a right to any resources (including people’s flocks and herds) that they want and need to survive. They are, in other words, a lot like humans in their arrogant assumption that the world and its resources are there to serve them. As some characters in the books contend, it’s ultimately a good thing for humans to have to deal with a larger, more powerful carnivore that can plan, reason, and often outwit them: perhaps the only check on human arrogance is having to share the world with an equally arrogant sentient race. But it’s definitely not portrayed as an easy partnership: like everything else in Hobbs’ world, the human/dragon relationship is believably complex and fraught with grey areas.
Grey areas are a recurring theme here, for few of the characters are purely good guys or bad guys (though there are a few all-out villains). Most are, like the people in our real lives, ambiguous — usually people who want to do the right thing, but often go about it the wrong way. Many of Hobb’s books carry an approving blurb from G.R.R. Martin, and though I also like his work, I find that everything Martin is usually praised for doing — the moral complexity of his fantasy world and its people, the willingness to let beloved characters go through hell and back — is something Robin Hobb did first and best. I can’t imagine a big- or small-screen adaptation that would be vast enough to do justice to her work, or that could ever compete with the images in my head, but her work certainly deserves the broad readership and attention that Martin’s has gotten in these past few years.
Robin Hobb’s most amazing accomplishment, to me, is how she manages to bring together so many different characters and plot threads over sixteen books into a satisfying conclusion in Assassin’s Fate. Not every storyline is neatly tied off — there are plenty of loose threads left for sequels if she chooses to return to this world again — and not every reader is going to be satisfied with every character and story that is resolved. But given the massive canvas she was working with — sixteen books, fifty years, at least four different countries, and dozens of major and minor characters — I think the way in which the storylines converged and character arcs were resolved in Assassin’s Fate was amazing.
And for our hero Fitz, after all his years and trials, comes an ending that is bittersweet — it couldn’t have been any other way — and yet, for this reader, completely believable and satisfying. I can’t say more without really crossing the spoiler line, but I am so happy both to have read these books originally, and to have reread them now. The Realm of the Elderlings is a world I’d gladly revisit again and again, and would highly recommend to any reader of fantasy.