Saturday, 19 April 2008

Shaman's Crossing by Robin Hobb

As promised, here is my review. Let me start with saying, I love Robin Hobb's books. I have read two of her three other fantasy series, The Farseer Trilogy, and The Tawny Man Trilogy, a sequel to the Farseer books. They are among my favourite fantasy books. I had forgotten though, how intense Ms Hobb's writing is, how thorough her world-building is. So, when I opened Shaman's Crossing, the first in her new Soldier Son trilogy, I was half-expecting to be back in the world of Farseer (the other trilogy, the Liveship Traders, is also set there). It was a shock to realize it was a new world, and it took me a little time to adjust. When I did, about a third of the way into the book, I was able to settle in and enjoy, not just enjoy it. With Ms Hobb's books, you enter a complete world. Everything is thought-out, and the writing and characterizations are perfect - there is nothing that strikes a wrong tone in her work. So, by the middle of the book when Nevare, the hero - the 'soldier son' of the title - is sent to the military college that he must attend as the second son of a soldier (the first son gets to inherit the house,property and money, the third son becomes a priest, etc), my attention was fully engaged, and whenever I put the book down, I found I was thinking about it and couldn't wait to get back to it. Even though the school and military life is present, the story is about Nevare and the intrusion of other magic into his life and the settlers of his country, who are pushing further east into the forest and mountains to open a new trade route to the sea. Nevare's people don't do magic, but the Specks, an unknown race who live in the forest, do. This first book sets up his first encounter with the Specks, and what the results are of that encounter. It is an amazingly moving final third of the book, that had me crying at the kitchen table last Sunday afternoon. I find I don't often cry or laugh aloud reading fantasy, that many books are pleasureable reads that don't require anything of us except a few hours. Ms Hobb's books are different because I find I become emotionally involved in the characters and the outcome. I have to know what happens next. I actually get cranky if people - chores - life insists I put the book down!

I've taken this week to think about this book and the world within it, because i wanted to be sure I did justice to it. I can say this fantasy is not for everyone, because not everyone will enjoy intense, original writing. And this is not a judgement call, it's an observation. Some people read strictly for pleasure, and don't want to think or - looking for a phrase here - experience a whole fantasy world. It is an experience to read any of Ms Hobb's books. The Fool, Fitzchivalry, and now Nevarre, are characters who are intimately connected with the survival of their worlds. I find this fascinating and it could be lame in other writer's hands (hero saves the world theme) but that's not the case here. These heroes of the various trilogies affect their world's balance. What they do is necessary for the world's survival, even if the people around them don't know, and have their own problems to sort out. This book, and her other fantasies, are not your average quest fantasy, and that is why I am cautioning my Gentle Readers. I certainly think these books are wonderful and well worth a try! And for those who have read her other work, this is as good as the other trilogies, but don't go in expecting more of the Farseer World. But give Nevare a chance, and Spink, Epiny, Nevare's father and Uncle, the college, the Specks, and so many of the other characters are so well-drawn, that you'll end up wishing you could be there too in their world, joining them on their adventures. I'd love to meet Epiny! She can talk to the spirits!

These are well-written fantasy books. It always gives me a deep pleasure to read them. This is fantasy that nourishes the soul, it's not just an adventure story with magic, and not just about magic either, as many fantasies written today are. Hobbs is a writer who understands that any call to adventure comes from within (to paraphrase Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces), and her characters struggle and fight with and against this call, because as is always the case, the journey to the soul can only be done alone, and takes the person away from the world. Her characters have dreams and desires and fight what is inside them as much as any of us in the real world do. This is part of what makes her writing so complex and so satisfying.

By the way, I have a confession to make - I have an awful style of reviewing books. I can't help it. I once gave a radio interview on CBC for Douglas Adam's book "Dirk Gently's Wholistic Detective Agency", many years ago (like in 1986??)....well, you can guess how that went, since it doesn't have a straight-forward plot!! I worked at a bookstore (now out of business) and did the interview into a tape in the back room. It was going to be played on CBC radio one later that evening. Everyone knew, all my friends and family were going to listen. And so was everyone else in Canada, since CBC goes across the country! So, Heather began the interview, and away I went. I thought I described the book very well, clear, put in some humour....well, my best friend called me after she and her husband listened to it, and said they were completely confused as to what the book was about, and they weren't sure at first it was me until they recognized they weren't going to get a plot!!! so, you see, habits die hard, and I still can't give a plot away. I have no idea where it comes from, but I can't do it. I expect on my gravestone they'll be able to put:"and she didn't give the plot away"!! I can tell you what works in the book, and what doesn't (if something doesn't), and I know what the plot is and of course I could put it here - and I could have said it on the radio interview, which I am certain I did, right at the very beginning: 'it's about a guy investigating a murder, but a whole lot more too! this story has.....' and off I went. So, I could put the plots down here on my blog, but I'm not going to. I want you to go read the book yourself. I'll tell you what I like in the book, and if it is worth reading (in my opinion), and if something is wrong for me I'll say that too. But even then, I want you to go read about it yourself. Unless it's dreadful, and then I'd probably only put 'dreadful book, don't bother'. Mostly, I want to dialogue about books - if you agree, or disagree, let's talk and share our experience of the book. That to me is the most we can get out of reading books with other people, because reading is principally, mainly, an intensely personal experience between you and the writer. So I'll ferry you to the book, but you have to make the journey yourself!!

Let me know if you've read it or her other books, and what you thought of them, Gentle Reader. I'm always giving a copy of the first of the Farseer Trilogy, Assassin's Apprentice, to people to read. So far, it's been mixed - so let me know!

Oh, by the way - I love Douglas Adams, and i gave Dirk Gently a rave review - at least I thought I did. Other people came up to me after and asked, "what was the book about again?" I was so sad when Adams died last year unexpectedly. He was a bright light in the SF field, and brought a much-needed sense of humour to his books and SF in general. The answer, my friends, is 42. If you know what that is the answer to, let me know. Today's pop quiz in the SF/fantasy world! *laughs softly*


Rhinoa said...

I have read The Farseer Trilogy, and will get around to The Tawny Man Trilogy at some point just to finish the tale off. All my friends love her books, but I have to say I really wasn't too impressed. I felt that 95% of the plot was left until the last 50 pages and most of the time it was obvious what was coming. I hope that I change my mind reading The Tawny Man books, but each to their own. I am glad you enjoyed this new world though :)

Susan said...

wow! that seems to be the case with her - either you love her, or you hate her. thanks for your thoughts, I really appreciate them.

Nymeth said...

I have never read Robin Hobb, but you're making me want to change that.

PS: I love Douglas Adams too. It's so sad that he passed away so young :(

Anonymous said...

I've read all three of the inter-related Farseer trilogies and absolutely loved them but I've had real problems with this set. I've read 'Shaman's Crossing' twice and found the balance of the stories a problem on both occasions. 'Forest Mage' was worse. I really think she's got the pace so wrong in that one. I have yet to steal myself to read 'Renegade's Magic'. Sorry, these just haven't worked for me.

Susan said...

Nymeth: I hope you get to read them! they are worth it.

Table Talk: I just got Forest Mage for my birthday (sitting in a box until I can open it in May!) so I will have a better idea of the pacing when I read it. One idea I had was, that since the soldier sons are expected to keep memoirs of their experiences as a soldier (as Nevare starts also), that the book(s) are written at the slow pace of a journal. We see the events unfolding as slowly as Nevare does. At first this bothered me too - I still don't know if she began the story too early, but I won't know until FM and the third one. anyway, I enjoy your opinion and will keep it in mind when I read Forest Mage. I'm glad you loved the first two series :-) This does continue the theme of really liking her work or not, though!

Emily Barton said...

Oh, I love Douglas Adams, too, and he's one of those ones I want to re-read, having not read him since I was in my twenties.