Reading was my first obsession, long before music or games touched the life of a rather timid, solitary child. My parents read to me a lot and I have some seriously happy memories of my dad and The Hobbit, a story that blew the mind of my 8-year-old self. It was my first foray into fantasy; up till then most of my books had been gentle historical stuff, like Laura Ingles Wilder’s Little House series, and the American Girls Kirsten series. But I was instantly hooked. Those magical events gave scope for grander emotions, acts of daring and sacrifice, and the potential for almost anything to happen. I moved on to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Madeline L’Engle, and to Tolkien’s other works, The Silmarillion and of course, Lord of the Rings. This was also the era of Goosebumps and Animorphs series, which were perfect light reading for a near-teen.
And then I began raiding my mom’s “adult” sci-fi/fantasy collections, pilfering Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, the Science Fiction Century anthology and dozens more. I grew to love books that involved realistic people, pushed to their limits, sometimes growing and sometimes barely surviving their trials. I also deeply loved the exploration of how different styles of living could affect the values and points of views of individuals and societies. It was a little heavier than Animorphs, to say the least.
I gained far more empathy and appreciation for people from my books than any interactions in school or the “real world” in the rather small towns of Hollister and San Juan Bautista. I learned and grew thanks to sharing all those experiences with the characters in the books. Even though these series are no longer my ultimate favorites, they still set the bar for what I expect in a good book: real characters, plausible scenarios (for the setting, anyway), living worlds, and less-than-black-and-white good-vs-evil plots/heroes/villains. So I was really pleased the first time I picked up Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles, a set of four books based in her Realm of the Elderlings.
What’s Done Well
Robin Hobb (her pen name) has a real knack for all these things. In each series and book she writes, her focus on characters who are not perfect heroes but people with strengths and also flaws gives life to what could otherwise be basic fantasy story-lines: dragons coming back into the world, a bastard prince turned assassin for his family, a frontier trading town and the magical taking ships that allow the city to survive and flourish. Her characters are so realistic, I sometimes found myself wanting to smack them as they made the same mistake over and over (just like the rest of us normal people who take forever to grow!). No one ever simply became the perfect version of themselves, the magical hero everyone loved and agreed with, a pet peeve of mine with many fantasy writers. And each person in her books has personality! Everyone has a realistic mix of good and bad traits. You may not like each of them individually but there are no flat throw-away people. Hobb lets the story develop from the characters, she doesn’t seem to plan her story then force characters into it merely to serve as a plot device. And that takes some superb writing skills.
She’s also hugely capable of making her fantasy stories really work. You rarely come across a situation that seems contrived, though you may find some characters to be a bit gullible or oblivious (again, rather like real people at times). When a charter takes a gamble, there’s a real chance it’ll backfire in a serious way. And while the settings are certainly magical and fantastic, they do contain threads of internal logic and reason that unify how the world works. She doesn’t default to, “It’s magic!”. The magic follows rules, has plausible limits and consequences. It’s really well done and ensures there’s rarely an easy way out for our protagonists. Me likely! I find nothing as annoying as a character getting themself into serious poopoo only to use some spell or artifact as a get-out-of-jail-free card. I’ll save that for my corny D&D campaigns, thank you.
Robin also clearly illustrates her world as she writes. While her work isn’t as flowery and descriptive as Tolkien (very few are, to my sadness…) she still doesn’t ignore or clip the art of description. You do get a good feel of what the world looks like, what the cities and people are like, without removing your own imagination from the equation. It’s a fine line to walk, balancing story and setting, but if you’re a fan of more minimal descriptions of people and places, you’ll really enjoy Hobb. She walks that line so that even a description-lover like myself can’t complain. Good stuff. I had no issues imagining any of the characters or places as I read.
The final major area I really enjoy in her books is simple; her villans are also people, doing very human things. The only “evil” you find is good old human vice, desires for wealth or power overruling compassion and common sense at times. There are acts of evil, on a grand scale even, but they come from a very human nature to ignore everything beyond our own noses, to be insular and distrustful of others over simple differences in culture, of allowing for extremism until it’s hurting ourselves. These are issues very well known in real life, and Robin translates them to her own worlds in a way that is neither peachy nor tolerant. She lets each character’s take on such foibles stand out, not her own personal opinion. I love how you never feel like she is forcing a message down your throat, only presenting what happened. Some authors do give a preachy vibe and that can be a turn off. So this is pretty key when I read a book.
As mentioned before, sometimes the characters are just so darn stubborn and set in their ways, you end up really frustrated watching them make the same mistakes over and over. This does seem to be cultural within their world (doing your own thing is highly prized most of the time), yet still -uggggg. I wanted to shake them! Also, if you go for the original Farseer Trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice, Royal Assassin, and Assassin’s Quest) and beyond, the pacing can be. so. agonizingly. slow. But as they are first-person-narratives, the meandering style fits the character well and you get a feel for him. And yes, some of the characters are extremely self-absorbed, going back to my main issue. But in small, sparsely populated countries, you DO encounter people who have very little understanding of others, empathy, or even time to consider those things as they work to live. Remember, this is a world of harsh conditions and relatively little education, a pre-industrial society. I personally missed long, detailed descriptions of places, people and things, yet this is a style choice and purely personal preference. Modern writers by the large tend to character and action driven narrative: “Do, don’t describe” is something you’ll hear recommended to new writers.
Her books are subtle and masterful. They’re not Hobbit/LOTR rip-offs, nor cheesy D&D campaigns sprinkled with plot holes. They’re books about real situations with real people, neatly wrapped into worlds you could almost step into. With dragons and magic, of course. They’re sometimes frustrating, simply because sometimes life is frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, there are still feats of heroism and daring-do, sacrifices for love and the greater good, moments of wonder and beauty and heart-rending sadness, terror and horror, but they stem from the story in a truthful way. Robin Hobb writes books that are like a living evergreen, compared to the cheap plastic Christmas trees of lesser writers’ fantasy stories. They are fleshed out, perhaps not perfect but still far more pleasing and somehow whole. If you like honest characters and everyone not always getting what they want, you’ll enjoy these books.