Last year I gave Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Assassin five stars and put it on my list of Best Books of 2014. Which puts me into a bit of a bind with her follow up, Fool’s Quest, since it’s even better. Clearly it will go on my Best of list for this year, but what about that rating? I may have to petition our fearless leader Kat for a sixth star waiver, or a five-plus category. Because in my mind, Fool’s Quest absolutely deserves that distinction. So, Kat, can I have 6 stars?
Sorry, Bill. We’re not equipped for that. But since I want to give Fool’s Quest 4.7745 stars, how about we average and round to 5 stars?
Sounds good. One of the reasons I found Fool’s Quest a “better” book is that as much as I loved Fool’s Assassin (and I did love it), I could see how many readers might grow frustrated at its focus on personal relationships and um, “leisurely” pacing filled with small-bore domestic detail and frequent moments of introspection (though at this point, I’m not sure why you’re reading Hobb if introspection isn’t your thing). Here though, those wishing for a little more plot in their plot shouldn’t have much to complain about. Yes, we still have long passages of Fitz musing on his life, detailed descriptions of clothes and food, and relationship, as always with Hobb, is the driver of nearly everything. But in Fool’s Quest we also get sword fights, chase scenes, escape attempts, wild gallops, dragons, torture, mutiny, vicious raids, and more. In other words, it’s a more traditional balance of quietude and action, of inner and outer focus. Kat, I know you also described the pace of the prior book as “slow.” Do you agree that Fool’s Quest ups the action quotient?
Yes, and I’d agree that this is the main feature that makes Fool’s Quest better than Fool’s Assassin. I’m grieved for what Fitz has lost and the tragedy that has struck his life — so much tragedy, again! — but these are the things that get Fitz moving around in his world and as much as we love Fitz when he’s feeding the chickens, we love him even more when he’s facing the world. Here he is, once again, finding himself in a new role in life and struggling to make sense of how he got there and what he should do next.
Fans of this series will also I think get excited about how the different worlds of Hobb’s fantasy universe (Buckeep, Bingtown, Rain Wild) start to come together here, as the novel seems to point to a merging/capping off of these ‘till now mostly separate strands. We also get some scenes that call back to or shed a different light on earlier events in the series, adding to the feeling that Hobb is moving us slowly toward some closure. Did you get that same sense Kat?
Definitely, and I thought this was another wonderful aspect of the plot. I have read and loved the Bingtown books (LIVESHIP TRADERS), but I have not (based on your reviews of the later books) read the RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES. I’m regretting that a bit right now and thinking about putting them on my TBR pile. Fitz’s fans don’t need to have read these related series, but it would make his world richer if they did.
Even though I think most people will react more positively to Fool’s Quest thanks to its uptick in more traditional action scenes, what brings me back again and again to Hobb’s work, and what makes this series one of my all-time favorites has always been, and remains, Hobb’s general strength in characterization. In particular, her greatest creation (and I’d argue one of fantasy’s greatest as well. Or heck, just literature’s) — FitzChivalry Farseer. Hobb shows Fitz in the totality of his personality — good and bad, nobility and pettiness, selflessness and selfishness. It’s all here, the whole panoply of humanity, warts and all.
Here, for example, is a scene between Fitz and the Fool, just after Fitz has refused to rush out and do something the Fool begs him to do:
He stared sightlessly at me as if I had said the cruelest thing in the world to him. Then his lower jaw trembled, and he dropped his face into his broken hands and began to sob.
I felt sharp annoyance and then deep guilt that I’d felt it. He was in agony. I knew it. How could I feel annoyed at him when I knew exactly what he was experiencing? Hadn’t I felt that way myself? Had I forgotten the times when my experiences in Regal’s dungeons washed over me like a wave, obliterating whatever was good and safe in my life and carrying me right back into that chaos and ruin?
No. I tried to forget that, and in the last decade of years, for the most part I had… “Please, don’t make me remember that.”
I realized I’d said the betraying words out loud.
How painfully real is it that Fitz, when his friend breaks down into tears, doesn’t feel sorrow or pity, but annoyance? Annoyance! What a crappy friend! But that’s what makes Fitz and all the others feel so human. And then he feels guilt, and we as readers feel better about our protagonist. But then he goes back into his own world and has that selfish “don’t make me remember that” line — focused more on himself than on the Fool.
There are so many such moments throughout this novel, this series, that Fitz has become such an accretion of tiny details over the years that it’s hard to remember he isn’t real. You know you’ve fallen wholly for a character, have completely bought into their human existence, when you tear up for a character not in a moment of tragedy (that kind of emotion can be easy to manipulate), but in a moment of happiness. And that’s exactly what I did here. Teared up, choked up, held the book loosely open in my hands for a minute or two without seeing the words, just reveling in this well-earned moment of joy for this character, this person I’ve spent so much time with over the years. And then went back and reread it once I finished the book. And had the same reaction. In fact, I choked up several times throughout the novel, which makes me worry just a tad about what might happen in the final book of this series. Kat, I know Fitz is also one of your favorite characters. Did you react as strongly to this novel, and perhaps to this particular scene (I’m going to assume you can guess which one it was)?
Wait. Fitz isn’t real??? What?? Bill, how could you do this to me???
Seriously, yes, FitzChivalry Farseer is my favorite character in fantasy literature and I’ve cried many tears over him in moments of both sorrow and triumph. And the scene you mention: I blubbered like a baby.
At the same time, though, I had to suspend disbelief a bit because I felt like that event should have happened years before and didn’t only because Hobb wanted us to experience it here. (Readers, this current trilogy is set a couple of decades later than the previous trilogy.) I thought that there were a few more of these little events and/or explanations that felt tacked on for drama or the plot’s benefit or just to give Hobb a chance to re-boot this series and her characters. While I think this detracted a bit from the sense of reality I expect from Hobb (and is why I’m giving Fool’s Quest only 4.7745 stars), I’m thrilled that Fitz has been re-booted because I love him. Fool’s Quest is still the best book I’ve read (and expect to read) this year and I absolutely enjoyed every moment of its 33 hours in audio format.
But back to Fitz and his friends. Let’s talk about the other characters.
Of course, because characters don’t become “great” on their own. Sure, Hobb creates three-dimensional characters who are compelling in their own right: Fitz, the Fool, Bee, Chade, Riddle. Hell, Hobb’s so good she creates compelling alias characters — some of Fitz’s disguises are more rounded characters than other authors’ protagonists. Her animal characters are more “human” than some authors’ protagonists (Nighteyes, of course. But I defy you not to warm to “Crow” and “Horse” and even “Cat” in this book). The true genius of Hobb, however, lies not in the individual depiction of character, not in the parts, but in the whole — in the entirety of the complex web of human (and animal) interaction. And depicting this web, and having its individual strands resonate in the reader’s heart and mind, is something Hobb does perhaps better than anyone. It isn’t Fitz and the Fool and Chade and Nettle that get to me in this book; it’s Fitz with the Fool, Fitz with Chade, Fitz with Nettle. Some of these interactions are touching, some are warm, some (not a lot) are funny, and some are just heartbreaking, heartbreaking in the present moment, but also heartbreaking in the anticipated future.
What do you think Kat — did you also find these interactions this powerful?
Yes, you’re right. And don’t forget Fitz with Queen Kettricken and Fitz with King Verity. These are the kinds of deep, trusting, and beautiful relationships we all wish we had more of. It’s interesting to notice that because Fitz has these kinds of relationships, he often acts passively, letting those he’s close to set his path for him. It’s nice to see him break out of that a little toward the end of Fool’s Quest. It will also be interesting to watch his developing relationships with Perseverance and Vigilant.
I’m glad you mentioned the animals. I was going to if you didn’t. Nobody writes animals better than Robin Hobb. I love all of her animal characters, especially her cats. The Crow was a fantastic character who added a nice spot of comedy to the story. I love him, but I don’t necessarily trust him…
The topics and/or themes of Fool’s Quest will be familiar to Hobb’s fans: the impact of loss and the attempt to overcome it, the ways in which events of the past continue to ripple through time, the impact of violence on both the victims and the perpetrator, what makes for good parenting, free will. One aspect I do want to mention with regard to the violence is the depiction of rape in the novel. I’ve pointed in recent reviews to major issues I’ve had with how rape is employed in many novels lately. Its use here is, no surprise coming from Hobb, serious, moving, and realistic, with no hint of gratuitousness or of its use as a “motivating technique.” Its lingering impact, as depicted in several passages, is crushing. Lots of authors could do worse than study Hobb’s portrayal before they turn to it as a plot element in their own works.
And, to be clear, not just the devastating impact on the person who was raped, but also their family and friends.
Beyond plot and character, the basic novel elements are just as one expects by now from a craftsman such as Hobb. The prose is vivid, sharply precise, evocative. Pacing and scene transition are expertly handled. Hobbs has always been a consummate writer, and that holds true here.
Yes, every sentence and every word is perfectly placed and packed with meaning.
I loved Fool’s Quest (so much so that I read its 750 pages in a single sitting), hated that it ended (and ended in a bit of a cliffhanger), and find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting the next book but also fearing it, nervous that I might have to say goodbye to Fitz and his world and knowing already that I’m “gonna need some lone time” if that turns out to be the case. I might just stack up the earlier books next to me so I can start over from the beginning right away. Kat, how was the audio version?
Elliot Hill has been narrating the FITZ AND THE FOOL trilogy, which is a change from the previous books. The FARSEER trilogy was narrated by Paul Boehmer and TAWNY MAN was narrated by James Langton. I don’t like Hill’s voices as well as I liked Boehmer’s and Langton’s. I think Hill’s characterizations of the Fool, Vigilant, and Queen Kettricken are wrong, and he gives some of the minor characters odd speech cadences to distinguish them from the rest of the cast. But, fortunately, I do like how he performs Fitz and Bee and most of the other characters, and he does a wonderful job with the animals. So, while the audio performance isn’t as good as the previous books’ performances, I can still recommend it and I’ll choose this format for the next book.
THE FARSEER SAGA — (1995-2013) Words Like Coins is a short e-story published in 2012. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a related prequel novella published in 2013. Publisher: Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father’s gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz’s blood runs the magic Skill — and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family. As barbarous raiders ravage the coasts, Fitz is growing to manhood. Soon he will face his first dangerous, soul-shattering mission. And though some regard him as a threat to the throne, he may just be the key to the survival of the kingdom.
LIVESHIP TRADERS –(1998-2000) Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships — rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown’s oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia. For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her — a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea’s young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence. But the fate of the Vestrit family — and the ship — may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles… and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will…
TAWNY MAN — (2001-2003) For fifteen years FitzChivalry Farseer has lived in self-imposed exile, assumed to be dead by almost all who once cared about him. But that is about to change when destiny seeks him once again. Prince Dutiful, the young heir to the Farseer throne, has vanished and FitzChivalry, possessed of magical skills both royal and profane, is the only one who can retrieve him in time for his betrothal ceremony — thus sparing the Six Duchies profound political embarrassment… or worse. But even Fitz does not suspect the web of treachery that awaits him or how his loyalties to his Queen, his partner, and those who share his magic will be tested to The breaking point.
THE RAIN WILDS CHRONICLES — (2010-2012) Publisher: Guided by the great blue dragon Tintaglia, they came from the sea: a Tangle of serpents fighting their way up the Rain Wilds River, the first to make the perilous journey to the cocooning grounds in generations. Many have died along the way. With its acid waters and impenetrable forest, it is a hard place for any to survive. People are changed by the Rain Wilds, subtly or otherwise. One such is Thymara. Born with black claws and other aberrations, she should have been exposed at birth. But her father saved her and her mother has never forgiven him. Like everyone else, Thymara is fascinated by the return of dragons: it is as if they symbolise the return of hope to their war-torn world. Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, also has an interest in the hatching; as does Bingtown newlywed, Alise Finbok, who has made it her life’s work to study all there is to know of dragons. But the creatures which emerge from the cocoons are a travesty of the powerful, shining dragons of old. Stunted and deformed, they cannot fly; some seem witless and bestial. Soon, they become a danger and a burden to the Rain Wilders: something must be done. The dragons claim an ancestral memory of a fabled Elderling city far upriver: perhaps there the dragons will find their true home. But Kelsingra appears on no maps and they cannot get there on their own: a band of dragon keepers, hunters and chroniclers must attend them. To be a dragon keeper is a dangerous job: their charges are vicious and unpredictable, and there are many unknown perils on the journey to a city which may not even exist…
FITZ AND THE FOOL — (2014- ) Publisher: FitzChivalry — royal bastard and former king’s assassin — has left his life of intrigue behind. As far as the rest of the world knows, FitzChivalry Farseer is dead and buried. Masquerading as Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is now married to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, and leading the quiet life of a country squire. Though Fitz is haunted by the disappearance of the Fool, who did so much to shape Fitz into the man he has become, such private hurts are put aside in the business of daily life, at least until the appearance of menacing, pale-skinned strangers casts a sinister shadow over Fitz’s past… and his future. Now, to protect his new life, the former assassin must once again take up his old one….