Friday, June 10, 2005

More from the Six Duchies

Last month I disclosed, perhaps rashly, that I had been reading the second book in a fantasy trilogy (recommended, incidentally, by philosopher Crispin Sartwell -- thanks for the tip!), about FitzChivalry the Witted Bastard and his Wit-bonded wolf companion Nighteyes. Well, I just finished the third volume, Assassin's Quest, and, while this is not a review exactly, I do have a few thoughts. My intent will be to avoid spoilers, but on the other hand I can't help revealing a few things (if you don't want to know anything, stop reading this now and go find a post about Spinoza or something).

Overall, the trilogy is very accomplished (the blurbs on the back cover, describing the first two books, say things like "intriguing, controlled, and remarkably assured," "built of patient detail, believable characters, and mature plotting," "And beneath all, that wise, deeply involved, humanity." All this is right; but I have a few minor gripes as well. Royal Assassin, the second book, worked because it takes place pretty much within the walls of Buckkeep Castle (with a few excursions here and there, including engagements with the Red Ships), so there was a focus on castle intrigue, where author Robin Hobb's careful plotting unfolds effectively. This time, as the title suggests, Fitz hits the road (out of necessity, given the ending of the second book), so there's more temptation, which Hobb does not resist, to have him face certain death and escape to someplace else and face certain death and escape again and face certain death and escape once more, which gets a bit tiresome. So it takes a while to get going.

Next, we inherit a few problems from the other books. Fitz is a rash and immature lad who keeps acting like a jerk and never learns, so often you just want to smack him. It doesn't help that Hobb underlines this with lines like "It was the worst thing I could have said" or "I knew it was a mistake even as I did it" or whatever. The usurper Regal is a cartoon villain, and making him even more pathologically cruel doesn't make him any more interesting. The Red Ship Raiders are nameless baddies (and the creepy "white ship" angle is dropped like a stone, except for a brief paragraph of explanation at the very end). The romance angle is PG-rated and adolescent, and of course Fitz's beloved Molly, while undoubtedly spunky, remains the cipher she was last time.

This is partly because we don't see a lot of her. And this is because we see everything through Fitz's eyes, and he's off questing while she stays behind (never mind why). The only reason we see her at all, in fact, is that Fitz uses the Skill, often involuntarily (e.g. when asleep, in Skill-dreams), to see what his distant friends are up to, not to mention the Red Ships whose invasion we were so concerned with in the last book. This must have seemed like a good device -- we are witness to a few key scenes we might otherwise never even have heard about -- but Hobb goes to the well too often here. It's as if, like Fitz himself, she couldn't bear to make the clean break with the investment she made in Molly, as well as (especially, given their importance in the other books) the more interesting characters Chade, Patience, and Burrich; plus of course she needs to remind us now and then that the war (remember the war?) is going badly (duh). It's both too much and not enough.

However, by the second half of the book the quest is on in earnest (although Fitz continues to face death, etc., with alarming regularity), a few key characters (guess who) are re-met in the flesh, and the narrative picks up as the question is joined as to where exactly Verity is and what exactly he's doing and will he succeed in time and who these mysterious Elderlings are, anyway. Here the Skill factor is well handled, as with the powerful Skill coterie controlled by the dastardly and ruthless Regal. That's really the best part of these books: the Skill, and of course the Wit, each of which takes on new strategic and tactical significance in this installment. The Elderling factor in particular is as well done, given all that buildup, as one could reasonably hope (though if you want a semi-spoiler, you could do worse than look at the cover of the book).

In some of the reader reviews at Amazon (I didn't read all 216 of them, just the few on the front page), there was some griping about the ending. In part, I think, this is because once the Elderlings get involved (which of course they do -- no spoiler there!), the war is over in a page or two, making it look anticlimactic. This didn't bother me, although it might indeed have gone that way, i.e., that we get 100 more pages (making 800 in all) of exciting battles with Raiders, Regal, etc. As it is, the climactic issue concerns how exactly the E's are enlisted -- and no, it doesn't go like this, thank goodness:
[Verity]: Please, Mr. Elderling, won't you help us save the Six Duchies?
[Elderling]: No.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Pleeeeease??
[Elderling]: (rolling his eyes) Oh, okay, if it'll get you off my back. Might enjoy kicking Raider butt.
[Fitz and Verity together]: Yaay!

Once it does happen, it's fine for the war (which, again, we haven't really been following except for a few unpleasant Skill-visions) to be over in an eyeblink. In general, everything happens that needs to happen, some bittersweet losses and partings occur, virtue triumphs and evil is vanquished. It's as well-crafted as it is disappointingly generic.

As I mentioned before, Hobb has written two more trilogies taking place in the same world, the next one about trade ships (presumably before the Red Ship war, with no apparent character overlap with the Farseer trilogy), and the third one with Fitz et al. some years later (these are the ones with "Fool" in the title, so we can assume that the Fool returns as well). I enjoyed the Farseer trilogy, especially Royal Assassin, but I have to say I'm in no hurry to go back to the Six Duchies any time soon.


Anonymous said...

The Liveship Traders trilogy is very interesting; it has some quite unexpected twists in the tale. I would recommend them to anyone who enjoys sea stories and/or Si-Fi fantasy.

Anonymous said...

*The Liveship trilogy also being by Robin Hobb