Luck of the Wheels (1989) is the final part in Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb’s Ki and Vandien quartet. I guess you could say this book is the odd one out in the series, having been published several years after the first three, which appeared in quick succession in 1983 and 1984. Lindholm had written a number of other books in the meantime, the incomparable Wizard of the Pigeons among them. These additional years of experience show in Luck of the Wheels. It is the best paced book in the series.
After Ki and Vandien’s adventures in The Limbreth Gate they feel forced to move south, beyond the roads either of them are familiar with. Ki has replaced her lost wagon with a new one, but this one is not suitable for hauling cargo as she was used to. Without any contacts, unfamiliar with the terrain, and with a wagon that doesn’t suit her needs, work is hard to come by. Ki finally decides to break one of her principles and accept a passenger. The fourteen-year-old boy Gotheris is to be apprenticed to his uncle in a town some two weeks travel away. The boy is decidedly odd but against her better judgment, Ki accepts the generous payment for this job. Something she will live to regret.
Once again Ki manages to saddle herself with a thoroughly unpleasant traveling companion. Unlike Dresh in The Windsingers, Gotheris, or Goat as he prefers to be called, is not stuck in a box. His actions display such a horrible lack of social grace and understanding of the consequences of his actions that it is a miracle he has survived this long. Although he constantly claims to have Ki and Vandien’s best interest in mind, he gets them into trouble more than once, doing a number of inexcusable things. For most of the novel, Goat is very unlikable. The reasons for this, and the ending of the novel, are meant to redeem him somewhat but I very much doubt Lindholm succeeded there.
What Lindholm does better in my opinion is work out the political situation in the land Ki and Vandien travel though. The many annoying officials demanding they buy permits for just about every step they take are the first sign that not all is well. The local Duke has also hired large numbers of brutal Brujans to patrol the roads and harass, rob or simply kill everybody who in their opinion is not supposed to be there. His tactics to hold on to power are clearly not appreciated by the locals and rumors of a rebellion soon reach Ki and Vandien. The way we see these events unfold through the eyes of Ki and Vandien is very well worked out. Their ignorance of local politics and the way it influences their decisions drive the story more than Goat’s interference in the end.
Ki and Vandien’s relationship is once again put under serious stress in Luck of the Wheels. Ever since meeting him in Harpy’s Flight Ki has had trouble fully committing to the relationship with Vandien. He doesn’t push but throughout the series the feeling that it is incomplete prevails. In this novel they seem secure in the way their relationship works but it doesn’t turn out to be quite the truth. Old scars are ruthlessly reopened and both main characters have to find a new equilibrium. Again something in them has changed fundamentally. In this part of the story I get the feeling Lindholm at one point considered expanding the series further. Ki has never dared to fully depend on Vandien. It would have been interesting to see what would happen to her when she does.
While Ki has to come to terms with her fear of commitment, Vandien battles his own demons. We find out a bit more about his past in this novel — a part that involves his talent in fencing. The last part of the novel includes detailed descriptions of a number of contests. Not all readers will appreciate that much swordplay in their fantasy but it seemed particularly well researched to me. Lindholm has written a page-long dedication to the man who helped her with that aspect of the novel. I think it turned out very well. During the tournament Vandien is in a particularly unstable state of mind, giving the whole sequence a very dark and threatening atmosphere. His inner turmoil is reflected in the bloody trail he leaves. I think it is not something a new reader could see Vandien doing based on what we’ve seen before. Maybe Vandien’s development in this novel is even more profound than Ki’s.
I would like to say that Luck of the Wheels is a fitting conclusion for the series but that would probably not be correct. In some ways it still feels like an incomplete series. The ending of this novel is satisfying enough, but I can’t help but wonder what else Lindholm had in mind for the two companions. Luck of the Wheels is probably the best written of the quartet. The pacing in particular has much improved since Harpy’s Flight. I think The Limbreth Gate remains my favorite, though. That being said, Luck of the Wheel, just like the previous novels in the series, is well worth reading. They may not be the epic, sprawling fantasy novels Lindholm has produced under the name Robin Hobb, but these leaner novels should still appeal to fantasy fans. I think her work published under the Lindholm pseudonym is under-appreciated.
Windsinger — (1983-1989) Publisher: HARPY’S FLIGHT was Lindholm’s first novel, and the first in the WINDSINGERS series, which introduced her popular gypsy characters, Ki and Vandien. Across the mountain sheathed with ice, through the treacherous shadow of the Sisters, Ki was running for her life, followed by Harpies, sworn to vegance; by the bitter memories of a once-idyllic past; and by one stubborn, dark haired man who seemed intent on being part of her future.