Today I finished a book.
I do this occasionally and usually with little fanfare, but this was a special one. The book was Robin Hobb’s “Fool’s Fate,” and in completing it I ended a 4500 page journey through one of the greatest collected works of modern fantasy. Those would be the three books in Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy as well as her subsequent Tawny Man trilogy. The trilogies together chronicle the life of royal bastard FitzChivalry Farseer, a man who must surely be one of the most long-suffering protagonists in the annals of fantasy fiction. (There is a third trilogy that jumps the story 10 years and continues with mostly the same characters, but I haven’t read it, and I need a break. I love these books but they’re emotionally exhausting!)
I don’t think I exaggerate when I describe Hobb as one of the greats. Google for lists of “best fantasy” or “greatest fantasy series” and the like, and these books appear on all of them, often near the top. But it would help a prospective reader to understand exactly what they’re getting before they pick up Assassin’s Apprentice.
Hobb’s Farseer books are at the far end of the character-driven scale. As fantasy literature goes, they are extremely light on traditional action sequences. This is not to say they don’t have engaging plots that will drive a reader forward on their own, but the stories themselves are not the main event. The characters are complex, highly varied, fascinating, sympathetic, and deeply flawed in realistic ways. (Also the villain of the first trilogy is every bit as hateful as any of the most loathed villains of the genre.)
The books tend to fall into a spiraling pattern, where the first-person narrator FitzChivalry Farseer interacts with a dozen other characters in turn, each time expanding on and developing those relationships. The result is a bogglingly-deep understanding of, and familiarity with, all the major players in the story. Every major pairwise relationship is deeply explored, and every sentence is fraught with relevance to one of these relationships.
The writing itself is also top-notch. No, that’s not strong enough. The writing is exquisite. It is flowing and poetic without ostentation, and serves to make even simple observations and mundane events a joy to read. Hobb is a master of language, and knows exactly how to use it in service to the exact kind of story she’s telling.
Fair warning: Robin Hobb is a “food-and-clothing” writer. You will be treated, often, to detailed descriptions of what the characters are eating and wearing. Were I getting these details from a mediocre writer (or even one merely good), I’m sure I’d find them tedious, but Hobb’s use of language is so deft, I enjoyed reading about every ruffle of lace and fruit tart.
The books are undoubtedly slow in places. You can pick up the first book in the second trilogy (Fool’s Errand) and read an outline of the main plot on the back cover, but you will then discover it takes something like 200 pages before that plot begins in earnest. And I think the last book in the first trilogy (Assassin’s Quest) drags a bit in the second half. But for me these are the most minor of quibbles. I still enjoyed those 200 pages, which consisted of in-depth re-introduction to the major characters and how they related to one another.
Finally, these books are not uplifting. Terrible things happen to the main character, and his choices – both wise and unwise – tend to lead to misunderstandings and heartache. You will read and be desperate for FitzChivalry to catch a break, but that seldom happens. That said, these are not books of the “Grimdark” school of fantasy. Deaths are neither brutal nor frequent, and nothing ever feels gratuitous, so there will be no confusing these books with Martin or Abercrombie. But there is a gauzy layer of inevitable tragedy draped over everything that happens; the books are engrossing but not joyful. (And one particular death scene is absolutely heart-wrenching.)
Were I rating these books on any common scale, I’d give them all the stars.
(Addendum: There is yet another trilogy – the Liveship Traders – that falls chronologically between the two trilogies I’ve been talking about. The Liveship Traders is only tangentially related to the Farseer books, but the latter contains a few minor spoilers for the former, in case you are a completist about these sorts of things.)