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Monday, January 7, 2008

"Renegade's Magic" by Robin Hobb

Order “Renegade’s MagicHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist’s REVIEW of “Renegade’s Magic
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s INTERVIEW with Robin Hobb

Whenever I think about contemporary fantasy, writers George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan (RIP), Terry Brooks, Steven Erikson and Terry Goodkind immediately come to mind, but never far behind is novelist Robin Hobb. For me, Ms. Hobb offers a different kind of fantasy experience, not just from the authors that I mentioned above, but in each of the series that she has written—the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders, the Tawny Man—and that trend continues in the Soldier Son trilogy.

Compared to her other books, “Shaman’s Crossing” and “Forest Mage” seem to have gotten more of a negative response than usual. Part of the reason I believe is that these are the first Robin Hobb books to take place in a world other than the Realm of the Elderlings which was the setting for all of the author’s previous novels, and you know that readers are creatures of habit who would rather revisit an established universe than try something new. So immediately you have that going against the new series. I also think that the slowness of the plot has turned off some readers, but most of all, it’s the character. Robin Hobb is known for putting her protagonists through hell and the Soldier Son trilogy is no exception. In fact, Nevare Burvelle probably suffers more than any of them, which is saying a lot considering everything that FitzChivarly has gone through. The difference between the two is that Nevare can be hard to like while FitzChivarly is arguably one of fantasy literature’s most beloved heroes. And since the entire trilogy is told through Nevare in a first-person perspective, I can understand why some readers might be having difficulties with the series. That said, readRenegade’s Magic” before you judge the trilogy based on just “Shaman’s Crossing” or “Forest Mage”. Trust me, it’s worth the effort and I think you’ll look at the first two books in a whole new light. You see, in a recent interview I did with the author, Ms. Hobb mentioned how she wrote the trilogy as a single manuscript broken into “three publishable pieces”. In other words, all three volumes of Soldier Son is actually one very long story and everything that happens in “Shaman’s Crossing” and “Forest Mage” make perfect sense when you finish “Renegade’s Magic”. Really, it’s quite brilliant…

It’s hard to talk about “Renegade’s Magic” without discussing the other two books in the series, but I’ll try to be as spoiler-free as possible. Basically Nevare, our protagonist, has suffered tremendously. Not only has he lost the life that he was born to and has always dreamed of—as the second son of a nobleman, Nevare was destined for a promising career as an officer in the King’s Cavalla, was already prearranged to marry, and would retire at his brother’s estate once he finished soldiering—but he has been tainted by the magic of his peoples’ enemies the Specks, which is using him against his fellow Gernians. Even worse, Nevare has suddenly become grossly overweight, has been disowned by his family and the cavalla, and exists as an outcast and a constant source of ridicule with no hope and no future. Things couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Wrong. In “Renegade’s Magic”, Nevare loses his actual body as the part of his soul that was captured by Tree Woman and then claimed by the magic is now dominant and fully intent on destroying the Gernians once and for all, including the very people that Nevare loves. To make matters even worse, everyone that is important to Nevare are also suffering terribly and apparently he owes Orandula—the god of death and the god of balances—a life or a death…

One of the criticisms that I’ve seen against the Soldier Son trilogy was that there was too much exposition or ‘filler’ that could have been edited out. I disagree. Ms. Hobb’s greatest strengths are probably her characterization and worldbuilding, and the intimacy with which she writes her characters and the setting are what makes the author’s books so special. For instance, the level of detail that Robin goes to in describing the life of a soldier son and what is expected of them, are integral to the story in emphasizing just how much Nevare has lost and why he’s struggling so hard against his ‘Speck’ nature. Additionally, the time spent dwelling on Nevare’s ‘fatness’ and the prejudice he endures from other Gernians comes into play in “Renegade’s Magic” when we get to learn firsthand about the Speck culture and the reverence in which they hold their ‘Great Ones’. Speaking of the Specks, this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book for me, because the society that Ms. Hobb has created is quite fascinating, especially the relationships between the Great Ones and their feeders, the relationships between child and parent, the purpose of the Ancestor Trees, learning the origins of the Peoples’ ‘dappled’ skin, and the nature of the magic which is not an instrument to be used by others, but instead, uses the People as its instrument.

I’ve also heard complaints about the story. I guess on the surface, not much actually happens between the beginning of “Shaman’s Crossing” and the end of “Renegade’s Magic”, at least if you compare the trilogy to the more convoluted plotting that can be found in the series by GRRM, Robert Jordan or Steven Erikson, and in truth, Ms. Hobb does spend a lot of time building her characters and the world, but there’s a lot more going on than you might think. You have to realize that while the larger scope of the story is dealing with the invasion of the Gernians into sacred Speck territory and the ‘magic’s’ quest to stop them, the Soldier Son trilogy is really more about Nevare’s personal journey of self, and in that regard you have to look a little bit deeper to discover all of the trilogy’s themes and subtext. Personally, I loved the conflicts that arose between Nevare’s divided identity and the way that neither the Specks nor the Gernians were depicted as good or evil, but just different from one another, each with their own noble and immoral qualities. Plus, Ms. Hobb has always done a wonderful job of taking her novels into unexpected directions and the Soldier Son trilogy is no exception, although a couple of things happen in “Renegade’s Magic” that readers might be disappointed in. First, is the solution that resolves the conflict between the Gernians and the Specks which seems unbelievably simple, but looking at it from Nevare’s point-of-view I’m sure it wouldn’t be ;) Secondly, the ending is surprisingly uplifting, at least for a Robin Hobb novel, but considering everything that Nevare has gone through, I was happy for him and enjoyed the way the trilogy was concluded.

In the end, I admit that I had some of the same reservations that other readers had when starting the Soldier Son trilogy, but the more I read, the better it got and “Renegade’s Magic” just made it all worthwhile delivering an emotionally powerful and challenging novel that just reinforces Robin Hobb’s status as one of the genre’s best writers and proving once again why she’s also one of my favorites :) In fact, when it comes to detailed characterization and elegant prose, I’m not sure I’ve read anyone who’s been as impressive except maybe Jacqueline Carey. As far as how the series stacks up to Ms. Hobb’s other books, the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies remain my personal favorites mainly because of FitzChivarly, but I think a lot of readers aren’t giving Soldier Son enough credit. It may not be as accessible as her other works, but I believe the trilogy is some of Ms. Hobb’s best material, both creatively and writing-wise, and is a wonderful addition to an already fabulous collection…


Angela/SciFiChick said...

I received Renegade's Magic from Eos, but I haven't read the first ones in the series. Are there any recaps, or would I need to read the previous titles?

Calibandar said...

I have to be honest and say I totally dislike this series. I'm a major fan of the Farseer and Tawny Man books, less so of Liveships but that was still a lot more readable than this series. Very disappointing. I hope Hobb's new Rain Wild book will be upto her best level again.

Robert said...

Angela, well the entire trilogy was written as one piece that was broken up into three volumes so I'd highly recommend that you read the first two before attempting "Renegade's Magic". I'm sure you could find some recaps somewhere, but you'd be missing out on quite a lot...

Calibander, since I already responded to your post on the ASOIAF forum, I won't rehash, but it'll be interesting to see how her next Rain Wild book fares with her fans. For me, the Liveship books were actually my least favorite out of all of the ones released so far, so I'm not as excited for it, but I will read it of course :)

Anonymous said...

I found this review rather late, but I really enjoyed this trilogy and I'm glad to find a good review of it. I've just finished Renegade's Magic and am about to post my own review of it, having earlier reviewed the first two. It's great to find someone who shares my view of it rather than disliking it as so many people seem to have done.

Anonymous said...

Have to say it took me a while to get my head aroung the Soldiers Son books as I was expecting more of Fitz. But I kept at it and about halfway through Shamans crossing I was hooked. Of the 3 I enjoyed forest mage the most. Ms Hobb certainly likes to make her heroes suffer thats for sure.

phatchik said...

Im a fan of Robin Hobb from the Rain Wilds and Farseer stories and admittedly I only started the Soldiers Son books while waiting for Assassins Quest to be available at the library (3 reservations on that so popular). I cant start the Tawny Man till Ive read the last book in the Farseer trilogy. I was expecting something akin to the Farseer so it took me a while to become part of the story but about halfway through Shamans crossing I was hooked also. Whilst the Forest Mage seemed to end rather conveniently and abruptly "by magic' I eagerly await to read Renegades Magic.

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