In my last post on Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, I was wondering about the differences between science fiction, speculative fiction and fantasy. This book falls squarely into the fantasy category, exhibiting what I think could be considered its defining characteristics: an imagined society where some element of magic, or paranormal power, is at work in everyday life.
Though by no means Robin Hobb’s first book, this is the first she wrote under that name, and published in 1995, is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. Since then, much of her extensive further writing has been set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’ which she first created in this book, with many of the same characters, including the hero of this one. Fitz is the illegitimate son of Chivalry, a prince of the house of Farseer, rulers of the Six Duchies. This is a realm somewhere in the North, a bit reminiscent perhaps of Scotland, or Alaska, where Hobb lived for a time (and may still live). The society is quasi mediaeval, with a ruler, nobles and commoners, built around trade and crafts, but with an emphasis on defence against the Outislanders known as the Red-Ship Raiders. The ‘Elderlings’ are little discussed in this book, but seem to occupy a space above humans but below gods – some kind of mythic ancestors.
The story is about Fitz’s coming of age. It is a first person account, told from the perspective of a much older, more damaged Fitz – I was reminded of Merlin, though Fitz is not precisely a wizard. At the age of six he is left at a castle by his grandfather, who no longer wants to be responsible for Prince Chivalry’s bastard. From there he moves to the court of King Shrewd, where he begins his training – as an assassin – which seems to be a conventional – if secret – role in this society. Fitz is to learn ‘the fine art of diplomatic assassination’, or in other words, ‘the nasty, furtive, polite ways to kill people’. This training has nothing to do with the two sorts of paranormal power that exist in this society. Fitz clearly has the first – known as ‘the Wit’, an ancient and now discredited form of telepathy with animals. Such communication is an enormous comfort to a lonely boy, but is dangerous because the mind of the person exercising it can become one with the animal. The second power is ‘the Skill’. Skilling is a process whereby people can transfer thoughts. This capacity is usually inherited, but can be acquired by training, and the skilled practitioner can get inside anyone’s head, given the right conditions. (Think occlumency in Harry Potter.) Fitz clearly has some power of mind, but is it the Skill, and can he be taught to use it?
Hobb is a very good story teller and the tale of Fitz’s attempt to find a place in the world is interesting in itself. The court is full of intrigue; Fitz finds he has powerful enemies and few friends, and he faces the psychological dangers of loneliness and depression as well as physical ones. The Six Duchies are troubled by the Red Raiders, particularly after they have found a way to draw the humanity out of those they capture in their raids. Stripped of what makes them human, these people are left to terrorise the countryside. Then there are court politics, and Fitz’s role in them, making for a surprisingly exciting story. Why surprising? I guess it’s partly a dissonance between the rather courtly language and the level of ruthlessness and violence. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit closer than I expected it to be.
I’m sure Hobb wrote this book with the intention of making it the first in a series, and that may account for all the loose ends – they will be taken up in later books. The main loose end I was concerned about was the nature of the dehumanising power of the Red Raiders, which isn’t addressed at all until near the end of the book, and then inconclusively. I found the power of bonding with animals was well handled, but can see the potential, only just avoided, for sentimentality. Who can resist being friends with a puppy?
One measure of the success or otherwise of the first book of a trilogy is whether the reader wants to go on to the second one. I think I will, but not for a while. Hobb is considered one of the best fantasy writers around, and her achievement can only be assessed if the scope of her work is taken into account.
You can read more about Robin Hobb – born Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden – here. She initially published under the name Megan Lindholm, and these books seem to be more science fiction than fantasy. However since 1995, under the Robin Hobb pseudonym, she seems to have stuck exclusively to fantasy. But I noticed that she was Guest of Honour at a recent World Science Fiction Convention; maybe I should just give up on the distinctions.