Review – Robin Hobb, Soldier Son trilogy

03Feb10

Nevare Burvell anticipates a golden future. He will follow his father into the Gernian army; to the frontier and thence to an advantageous marriage.

Sometimes you feel sorry for people in novels with apparently golden futures – it never seems to work out that way for them, at least not in the way they expect.

Nevare’s father puts him through a ruthless training regime from an early age, including handing him over to his ‘honourable enemy’ who inducts him into a world of magic and a terrifying encounter with a tree-woman. Although Nevare thinks he can return to his life and continue as if it never happened, he has been marked by the magic and it will bend him to its will. His military career should take him to the Barrier Mountains, home to the enigmatic Speck people. Exotic and misunderstood, they are believed to spread a sexual plague, which has ravaged the frontier. But the Specks come to him, and through him the plague is unleashed on the Gernian capital city, Old Thares, decimating the population there and destroying a generation of future army officers. Although Nevare recovers from the plague and has seemly defeated the Speck magic that originated it, the magic is not done with him yet. Changing him physically in a way that shames both him and his family, he is outcast, becoming gradually aware that his most dangerous enemy might dwell within him. Exiled to the frontier and serving in the only capacity he can –  as a cemetary guard – he becomes more aware of the Speck people and the magic within himself. His physical appearance sets his own people against him and when he is accused of unspeakable crimes they are quick to condemn him. Only the magic saves him, sweeping him away to the Speck people to shape him into  a weapon to stop Gernian expansion. With all his efforts to find a peaceful solution coming to nothing, Nevare must stop his spirit-twin’s takeover of his body and mind to prevent a bloodbath and avoid becoming a traitor to his people.

This is written from a constricted first person pov – entirely within Nevare’s perceptions. When we first meet him it appears to be a limiting move, to confine us to someone who is incredibly well-trained by a highly dominant and controlling father, groomed to only want one thing without a trace of defiance or independent thought, and although the fabulous writing had me immediately engaged, I did wonder if Nevare was going to command my attention and sympathy across an entire trilogy. What works well is that his ambitions and integrity are never eroded, but he is gradually undermined on all sides – first by his father, and then by the relentless ‘magic’ that will strip him of everything he loves to force him to its will. It is this erosion, coupled with the realisation that if he follows the magic’s demands he will betray his entire people, that makes this a fascinating read. With his soul split by the tree-woman he is defeated by at the beginning of the first book, he lacks the ruthless edge that will make him an efficient soldier. With political enemies amongst the Gernian nobility set against him, he is denied the opportunity to become an officer and follow in his father’s footsteps. The physical changes the magic brings to him earns him the disgust and rejection of his family, until he is so reduced that his personality literally becomes a dismebodied spark living in an alien body. What is striking is that he manages to overcome all of this and resolve his terror of uniting with his ‘spirit-twin’ in a way that doesn’t, fundamentally, compromise either his honour or his loyalty to his people and his king, despite the vast wrongs they do him along the way. There are times, along the way, when I wish he would grow a pair and speak up for himself, and at those times all the noble sufferings gets a bit tedious and – dare I say it? – whiny – but as we come to understand that the splitting of his soul robbed him of those qualities, it becomes all the more admirable that he doesn’t completely cave and does manage to cling on to his integrity.

The characteristation is simply stunning.

And not only of Nevare himself. Although we never step out of his point of view, the cast of supporting characters are well-drawn and utterly believable, the actions that flow naturally out of who they are driving the action forward and pushing Nevare inevitably towards the moment when he must confront what he most fears. His father, sister, cousin Epiny, his barracks colleagues – they are all clear to me, coming across as coherent, complete people with wishes and fears and desires of their own, all of them melding in what seems an effortless feat of plotting to bring the denouement about.

The two different cultures – one very much rooted in a pragmatic materialism, and the other a spiritual, magical people with their roots in the ancient forests – are drawn with depth and consistency, and draw echoes of modern sensibilities and arguments around environmental degradation and preservation, but never to the extent that it feels like preaching. The political background is as big a driver as the characters operating within that structure: the two cultures are set in opposition to each other at a fundamental level, but neither is portrayed as purely ‘good’ or purely ‘evil’ – there is a believable balance of both in each. What is striking is that the rigid structures in both cultures are the source of much of the ‘bad’ that is done – only a willingness to face and accept change results in positive action, and the voices promoting changes are few and despised by the many.

I wonder if these novels have bene fattened up to make a trilogy? My biggest complaint would be that in places the description goes overboard, and there is a fair amount of repetition of imagery. All the eating in the final book – even though this is what powers the magic – does get a bit belaboured (even for a foodie like me), and I felt that both the second and third books could have been pared of some of this indulgent showing-off of worldbuilding in favour of a shorter and more dynamic read. These are not, though, biff-bang-pow all-action stories – rather, they are more centred on an individual’s experiences and a growing understanding of how these relate not only to his own growth, but to the wider political machinations surrounding him, so perhaps a bigger space to allow that slow unfolding was in order.

I think the telling point, for me, is that I was almost sick with the need to know what happened next when I had to suspend reading for reality-based activities like childcare, eating, and house-chores. Sleeping was foregone – I was up until 5 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning because I literally couldn’t put down ‘Forest Mage’ – all the way through in one sitting, and though I kept telling myself I would go to bed after ‘just one more chapter’, somehow I didn’t stop until I got to the end. (and yes, I was grumpy on Sunday). It’s not often that a trilogy will get me like that, so I’m going to reserve my criticisms and just say simply that I enjoyed these. Robin Hobb is a fantastic writer.

The Farseer trilogy, however, is better … and now I want to go and spend some time with Fitz, again.

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One Response to “Review – Robin Hobb, Soldier Son trilogy”

  1. Robin Hobb is so great at characterization. I really enjoyed “Forest Mage” for its uniqueness. Who would expect the main problem in a fantasy novel to be a character’s fatness? So fresh and intriguing. But I’m not sure anything can surpass the Farseer Trilogy, ever!


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