Thursday, January 28, 2010

Robin Hobb - Farseer

All too often I find I have wandered far from a history of the duchies into a history of FitzChivalry. Those recollections leave me face-to-face with who I once was, and who I have become.

Robin Hobb is, in many ways, a one trick pony. Wait, wait! Don’t leave yet. I don’t mean that in a particularly negative way. There’s nothing wrong with the majority of her style; it’s just utterly overshadowed by one aspect. She has less in common with a dog standing on its high legs and more in common with a dog learning to drive a racecar.

As anyone who’s ever read Hobb can likely attest, her strength is not plot. Farseer’s plot is, ultimately, fairly generic. There is an abandoned bastard son, brought to the castle to serve as an assassin. There are three brothers, two honorable and brave, one spiteful and cowardly. There are barbarian raiders from another land, and there are magics both old and very old. Have I intrigued you yet? No, I thought not.

Her strength is not setting. We’re in the Six Duchies, a confederation of six former states, all ruled under one king. The coastal Duchies fish; the inner Duchies farm. There is conflict between the two; the coastal Duchies are reluctant to pay taxes to defend a coastline they do not share. It’s thought out better than most of its ilk, I’ll admit, but it’s still not exactly the kind of thing that you view with your jaw on the floor.

Robin Hobb’s strength is character. It’s not an intellectual strength; I’m not talking about revolutionary backstories, or motivations, or anything like that. Her strength is visceral. These people feel real in every way possible. We see Verity trying to fill his older brother’s shoes, trying to guard the kingdom. He does everything he can, and he is wasting away, and it is not enough. We see him, and we know that he cannot succeed, and he knows he cannot succeed, and yet he cannot – will not – stop.

Fitz is the main character, the aforementioned bastard son of Price Chivalry. He has a depth that can only be had when the reader experiences his growth alongside the author, alongside the character. When we first meet Fitz, he is a blank slate:

My memories reach back to when I was six year old. Before that, there is nothing, only a blank gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me...

It’s said that our experiences shape us, and so it is here. We experience everything that Fitz does, and so is it that surprising that we are shaped in the same way the he is? In book one, we see Fitz develop loyalties in friendships. In book three, these loyalties are tested. The reader cannot look on with detachment, cannot wonder if he will stand fast or not. There is no intellectual contemplation, no thoughts that he should simply bite the bullet and move on. By that point, it is not Fitz that is being tested, at least not wholly. The reader is invested along with him. Every bond that Fitz forges is shown with meticulous detail, and the reader himself becomes friends with Prince Verity, Molly, and Burrich. These friends may not speak to us directly as we read, but there interactions with Fitz are, on every level that matters, interactions with us.

We become so deeply immersed with Fitz that his reasoning becomes our own. I would wager that everyone has had the unsettling experience of having someone tell us our own motivations and realizing that what we thought we were acting for was just blissful, comforting delusion. It is the same experience when Fitz’s motivations are called into question. Acts that felt so pure at the time are suddenly given new light, and we feel almost sullied as we contemplate them afresh.

A large portion of your enjoyment of Farseer depends on how much you like to meander. Hobb is anything but direct. I’ve heard it said that her writing is eighty percent filler, and it’s hard to really dispute that claim. All the same, I think that it’s the so called filler that makes Hobb worth reading in the first place. The reader lives through Fitz’s life, and I do not mean just the important moments. No, the books – and Hobb – shine through the monotony of day to day existence. If you are willing to simply cut yourself loose, to lose yourself in Fitz’s existence, you’ll find yourself living a life no less complete and complex as your own.

I suppose that that is, quite literally, escapism. All the same, I’ve never understood the term completely. It’s defined as: “Habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.” I suppose I can’t argue with that, but the term seems to far more often carry a negative connotation. I’ve often heard it said that it’s taking refuge from the real world. Ignoring the tone of the novel in question, something has never struck me as accurate about this definition. Just because what we’re doing does not directly tie into our own lives, why is it inherently meaningless? I’m not defining meaning as a simple recharging of the batteries here, either, though it can do that too. But books can do so much more. Who says that, just because the terms in question are not those of the real world, we are not learning, are not experiencing?

Besides which, if I was going to escape to somewhere else – a Hawaiian vacation for the soul, say – I’d make it somewhere les depressing. The titles and covers all seem quite carefree, but the actual text is anything but. This is, despite all appearances to the contrary, anything but standard fantasy. We are in Fitz’s head for his triumphs, yes, but also for his tragedies, and we feel both with equal force. Just because Fitz tries something, and just because Fitz is one of the “good guys,” does not mean that he will succeed. Be prepared for disappointment of the most bitter flavors while reading.

“I always believed, perhaps childishly, that if you followed the rulers, you would be protected, that things like that would not happen to you. Afterward, I felt…tricked. Foolish. Gullible, that I had thought ideals could protect me. Honor and courtesy and justice…they are not real, Fitz. We all pretend to them, and hold them up like shields. Against those who have discarded them, they are no shields at all, but only additional weapons to use against their victims.”

Of the individual books, the first is at once the one with the fewest flaws and the weakest. The second, by contrast, has glaring problems, and yet it’s undoubtedly my favorite. The first book lays down the connections, and it is half the size of the others. It’s not focused, no, but it never meanders too much, and we always have our ending goal in sight.

The second, on the other hand, is almost nothing but meander. It’s an attempt to preserve the status quo as seen in book one, but for half the text exactly how we’re doing so is quite hard to see. That being said, Hobb’s writing gets better as it goes on, and every interaction between Fitz and another character only makes the overall story that much deeper.

The third novel is an odd mixture of the two. It should, by all rights, be the most driven. A goal is immediately established, and Fitz sets out to accomplish it. Perhaps because of this, it’s the first time where the repetitive nature of the story began to become somewhat irksome. When there’s no set destination, I’m fine with exploring every little town that I pass on a long drive. When I’m late for something, however, I’m far more tempted to ram the pedal to the ground and get somewhere. This is not an urge that Hobb shares, and the cycle of Capture-Escape goes on to the point of insanity. At which point we’re finally given a break, and the book takes a hard right turn. Everything changes, and it’s at once totally brilliant and anything but. The ending is powerful, yes, but also rushed. As it is, it’s a decent closing to a brilliant series, but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that it could’ve been an amazing ending.

If you’re looking for something exciting, or something uplifting, Farseer is not for you. This isn’t about a gripping plot or fascinating locales. This is about people living their lives, and, though it’s fantasy through and through, Fitz and Hobb’s other creations feel as real to me as anyone I know. If character driven is what you’re after, I’m not sure it’s possible to do better than this.