Robin Hobb has just concluded her Soldier Son trilogy with the third book — Renegade’s Magic. There doesn’t seem to be much point in reviewing solely Renegade’s Magic, however, as anyone who has read the first two is likely to pick up the conclusion, so instead I’ll simply review the trilogy as a whole.
Of course, the first question one has to answer as a reviewer is would you recommend the book(s) to a reader. I wish I had an answer. To be honest, I’m just not sure, for several reasons. Let’s start with the positives. I think Hobb was truly ambitious with this series in a lot of ways, including:
- Character — she is willing to have several very unlikeable characters drive much of the plot — including the one/two main character(s).
- Point of view — employing a hybrid first/third person limited in Renegade Magic when the main character is an observer in his own body.
- Themes — the clash of cultures, the clash of religions, free will, prejudice, environmentalism, the individual versus the greater good, progress versus tradition, etc. She wrestles with big questions here and often does so thoughtfully.
- World creation — setting her trilogy in a 17-1800’s American frontier sort of world with no truly strange races (and none of the clichéd ones — elves, dwarves, etc), no bizarre or portentous sounding place names, and very little wielded magic (usually the magic does the wielding).
- “Gray” ethics — presenting us with characters and situations where the choices are not so black and white, where actions aren’t obviously good or evil.
- Plot and pace — carrying us along in a slow, almost real-time/real life pace and pulling tension out of character or economics/politics rather than out of battle and conquest.
In short, Hobb breaks away forcefully from many of the conventions of the fantasy epic genre — the medieval, magic-infused, mixed-race world where armies mass for large battles while a small overmatched group representing the obvious good quests for a sneaky way to defeat obvious evil, led of course by the Dread Lord Sauron, I mean, um… The complete originality that permeates the book is a welcome change of pace from the usual big-book fantasy.
Another plus is simply the writing. Whether she is creating an entire continent or the smaller worlds of home and barracks, township or market; or creating major characters that spill across all three novels or minor ones that appear for only a few paragraphs or pages, she does so with a sharp, rich sense of fine detail. Her dialogue is rock solid — sounding like people would actually sound during the situations they find themselves in.
Clearly, then, there is a lot to admire in Soldier Son. But that’s also the sticking point. There is a lot to admire, but if I were completely honest, I’m not sure there is a lot to enjoy. It’s an admirable risk to employ an unlikeable character, let alone several, but it’s a risk that may work better in novella form, or at least in a single novel. It’s asking a lot, perhaps too much, of a reader, to carry that dislike over 2000 pages. I could barely do it, finding the main character Nevarre almost too much to continue with in book two and here again in book three. When he gets twinned with an equally unlikeable other self, and the two of them do little but squabble or sulk, it became almost enough to make me stop even in the concluding book of a series.
Hobb wrestles with big themes here, but I’m not sure I walked away with a crystalline view of how we’re supposed to see them. Looking over the series, it seemed many of the concepts were a bit muddy. If you’re just throwing them out there for us to think about (“talk amongst yourselves”), that’s fine, but somehow I feel a bit more is warranted if I’m going to invest the time to read three large books.
The point of view is interesting stylistically, but I’m not sure it best served the book. The passivity of the narrator was a bit annoying, and his ability/inability to become active seemed a bit too arbitrary, based more on the need of plot than anything else. The pace is sometimes too slow in all three books. Book one rewards the pace more than either of the latter two books, which seem overly slow, overly dry, and at times overly repetitive — both could have lost a few hundred pages and suffered very little in terms of characterization or plot. While the endings of books one and two do much to redeem their earlier flaws, and though some of Renegade’s Magic’s ending has the same effect, much of it also seems too pat, too forced, or tacked on. And the big solution to the whole clash of cultures, or at least a major one, seems far too simple and anti-climactic, making one wonder if the whole thing couldn’t have been solved in the first thirty pages of book one.
In the end, I’m torn about recommending the series. After all, for most people 2000 pages is a large investment of time. I’m a fast reader and all three books probably took me about 10 days total to read and I’m not sure I feel it was worth it. I’m still trying to decide. But if someone needs to set aside 20 days of reading, or more, than it’s hard to imagine that they’ll feel repaid in the end. And with so much out there that is enjoyable, it’s hard not to send them elsewhere.
Sadly, then, I think I’d lean toward a no. Sad, because as I said, there’s a lot to admire and this sort of ambition should be rewarded, I think. But not if it doesn’t equally reward the reader. So I’ll cheat a little and say read book one. In many ways, and especially many traditional ways — it’s the book most likely to bring enjoyment. If that one doesn’t do it for you, and doesn’t do it by a lot, then don’t feel bad about putting it down and picking up something else.
The Soldier Son — (2005-2007) Publisher: Nevare Burvelle is the second son of a second son, destined from birth to carry a sword. The wealthy young noble will follow his father — newly made a lord by the King of Gernia — into the cavalry, training in the military arts at the elite King’s Cavella Academy in the capital city of Old Thares. Bright and well-educated, an excellent horseman with an advantageous engagement, Nevare’s future appears golden. But as his Academy instruction progresses, Nevare begins to realize that the road before him is far from straight. The old aristocracy looks down on him as the son of a “new noble” and, unprepared for the political and social maneuvering of the deeply competitive school and city, the young man finds himself entangled in a web of injustice, discrimination, and foul play. In addition, he is disquieted by his unconventional girl-cousin Epiny — who challenges his heretofore unwavering world view — and by the bizarre dreams that haunt his nights. For twenty years the King’s cavalry has pushed across the grasslands, subduing and settling its nomads and claiming the territory in Gernia’s name. Now they have driven as far as the Barrier Mountains, home to the Speck people, a quiet, forest-dwelling folk who retain the last vestiges of magic in a world that is rapidly becoming modernized. From childhood Nevare has been taught that the Specks are a primitive people to be pitied for their backward ways — and feared for their indigenous diseases, including the deadly Speck plague, which has ravaged the frontier towns and military outposts. The Dark Evening brings the carnival to Old Thares, and with it an unknown magic, and the first Specks Nevare has ever seen…