Fool’s Quest, by Robin Hobb - book review: More swords and sorcery from a Dame of Thrones

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The Independent Culture

Robin Hobb is a novelist who appeals to readers who usually avoid fantasy, even when burnished by HBO’s adaptation of A Game of Thrones. Her hero FitzChivalry Farseer is a kind of Hamlet with extras. Gloomy, self-critical, passionate, sardonic and naïve, Fitz is a Royal bastard, telepathically linked to a wolf, half in love with his friend the androgynous Fool, and embroiled in an aristocratic world as violently political as Elsinore. He is also a trained assassin, whose adventures are chronicled in six best-selling novels whose fame has grown by word-of-mouth.

A decade ago, we left Fitz embracing the life of a contented country squire, husband and father. Last year, Hobb returned to her best creation in Fool’s Assassin, endowing him with supernatural youthfulness and an unexpected child, Bee, whose precognitive powers and a resemblance to the Fool were clear to the reader but not the narrator. No sooner did Fitz rediscover his vanished friend on the point of death than his little daughter was kidnapped by the sinister Servants. To save the child, Fitz must not only nurse the Fool back to life but unravel his mysteries and avenge his friend’s torture and blinding.

If there is one tale we enjoy almost as much as how a hero discovers supernatural gifts, it is how he or she rediscovers them. There are the usual fantasy tropes, but Robin Hobb’s secret is not just the detail with which she depicts the Six Duchies world she has explored over 20 years, but her emphasis on internal drama. People judge and are misjudged, and although they try to contact each other via magic rather than mobile phones, the feelings of anguish, ambiguity, fear and failure are as familiar as those in a novel by Jonathan Franzen; Fitz is his own harshest critic, driven by responsibility and compassion.

Indeed, by the time violence erupts into his life again, you wish for more action and less introspection. Yet this is, despite its masculine narrator, a world in which healing, clothing, kindness and the terror of rape are given as much weight as combat, drinking, wealth and whoring – fantasy ameliorated by the female perspective, perhaps.

The majority of its citizens are people who would rather trade and raise families than fight. Pitted against brainwashed religious fanatics and mass-murderers who are undetectable by their victims, Fitz must kill in order to protect a vulnerable world which is largely unaware of his endeavours. It’s a sensibility which seems very contemporary and, in its veneration of Royalty as a source of moral responsibility, engagingly American.

The mood is nothing like as bleak as George R R Martin’s, nor as Manichean as Tolkien’s, but close to Ursula le Guin’s redemptive humanism. Despite his telepathic powers, Fitz is an Everyman that we all identify with, and his quest to find his small child is interspersed with Bee’s struggles to keep her gender, prophetic dreams, and steely intelligence a secret. Will she escape? It had me waking at 6 am to find out.

Amanda Craig is currently finishing her seventh novel

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