March 21, 2004

Fool's Fate by Robin Hobb

This is the ninth fantasy novel by Robin Hobb (ignoring for now all the earlier books under her other pseudonym, Megan Lindholm). Her first three were about FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of a prince of the royal family of the Six Duchies. Her second trilogy was set far down the coast in a community of traders whose ships, made from a strange substance called wizard wood, come to life. Those books examined the complex social net of the traders and the complex lifecycle of their world's dragons.

In her latest trilogy, Hobb returns to the Six Duchies and the character of Fitz. She also brings to the fore the one character who was present in all six previous books (though in disguised form in the Live Ship Traders), the Fool. The Fool is a member of a race different from the rest of the human denizens of Hobb's world. He is capable of prescience, but not only can he see the future, he can engineer changes in the future by exerting influence over certain other individuals who can serve as catalysts to sweeping alterations in the course of history. Fitz is such a catalyst.

One of the distinctive features of Hobb's world is that there is more than one kind of magic (though you could argue that they are all aspects of the same ill-understood underlying phenomenon). In particular there is what is called the Wit which allows its adepts to sense and communicate with other living creatures at an animal level. There is also something called Skill which is a more intellectual power. Neither is particularly widespread, and some people are capable of exercising both powers (Fitz, of course, is one of these.)

In the hands of a lesser writer, the dynamic duo of the Fool and Fitz could be a recipe for stories where the plot moves along by auctorial fiat. Hobb has instead built characters and cultures with a realistic level of complexity and conflict. Plans go awry. People refuse to be manipulated.

It's hard to talk about Fool's Fate without putting in a raft of spoilers for it and all the prior books. I enjoyed it as a page-turner adventure. I got impatient with some of the annoying habits and bull-headedness of the characters, but that's really how it should be and just shows that the characters are realistic. Overall, the book had a feel of trying to intentionally wrap up all the loose ends in the Fitz/Fool story arc. At times it seemed like Hobb was burning backstory like cord wood. Indeed, she says on her web page that she thinks this is her last book about Fitz and the Fool. But she also points out that she thought she was done with Fitz after the first trilogy.

Posted by jeffy at March 21, 2004 11:11 AM
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