Monday, August 11, 2014

Slow-Burning Fantasy and the Non-Start Story

Robin Hobb, Fool's Assassin: Book One of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy

FitzChivalry Farseer, former king’s assassin and royal advisor, has retired to anonymity, posing as a yeoman farmer. But palace intrigue draws him back in. A cadre of pale-skinned cutthroats and an impossible soul-capturing curse reveal treachery deep within Buckkeep Castle. Ageless and lethal, Fitz resumes the one occupation he’s truly mastered, drawing blood to defend his king. But these events portend the return of Fitz’s supposedly long-lost confidant, Fool.

Hobb’s publisher calls this the start of a new trilogy, but be aware: it’s Hobb’s seventh novel featuring FitzChivalry Farseer, and her fifteenth set in the Six Duchies. I didn’t understand this, initially. Hobb generously provides newcomers with a brief orientation, probably useful to seasoned readers too, as her last Farseer novel debuted eleven years ago. This novel isn’t freestanding, but it’s sufficiently independent for momentary purposes.

Therefore, your response indubitably depends on your expectations. Hobb’s publicity professionals compare her to George RR Martin, a fairly merited analogy, but perhaps too spot-on: her opening scene musters foreboding that would’ve seemed ominous before the Red Wedding blew up the Internet. Now it just seems really, really long. Readers who followed this story from its 1995 debut called it pathbreaking. Us neophytes will find it over-familiar and derivative.

We’ll also find it wordy and digressive. Hobb’s first two chapters promise drama: strangers invade Fitz’s festival, slaying a messenger, burgling his royal artifacts, and disappearing unmarked. Ooh, auspicious. But Hobb halts the action mid-chapter, suddenly announcing: “But over the next few days…” Not even a line break. Chapter Three commences three years later. Something Red Wedding-ish almost happens, then Hobb immediately dissipates all tension. It never quite returns.

Stylistically, Hobb is surely her own worst enemy. She makes weird choices that slow reading way down, taking readers out of the moment. At key moments, she displaces action or exposition with small talk that, presumably, reveals key character traits, but drains all momentum. Conversations take several pages and serve no purpose. Hobb seemingly deflects energy from her narrative, holding audiences’ attention in limbo indefinitely.

Story elements constantly remind me I’m reading prose, not sharing an experience. The lack of historicity: Hobb, through her first-person narrator Fitz, describes clothing from the Renaissance, late medieval metalsmithing technology, an apparently Dutch Colonial manor house, and remarkably modern record-keeping practices. The languages: Fitz speaks with Americanisms and present day argot. Hobb’s setting doesn’t just lack place and time, she actively avoids having any recognizable domain.

Even character names draw attention to Hobb’s strange authorial choices. She mostly uses characternyms: King Dutiful, Lady Patience, royal advisor Steady. (These characternyms are frequently ironic.) Then she drops them irregularly, giving certain characters made-up-sounding names like Kettricken and Burrich. And Fitz’s pseudonym in retirement is Tom, with his wife Molly. It’s almost like Hobb wants us to pay attention to her typography rather than her storytelling.

(One characternym bears especial notice. FitzChivalry earned his name as his father Chivalry’s illegitimate son. The Anglo-Norman patronymic “Fitz” means son of, but herein, it means bastard of. So whenever Fitz’s wife Molly, his daughter Nettle, his housemen, his king, various friends, honored kinsmen, and others address him as “Fitz,” they’re calling him “Bastard.” Imagine if everyone you loved called you “Shitstreak,” and you answered to it. That’s Hobb’s approach.)

I have difficulty commenting upon Hobb’s story, because I’d read five pages, set the book down, and start making excuses not to resume reading. In a book pushing 700 pages, such fitful reading makes slow progress, but Hobb gives so little to hang my attention on, besides the physical fact of her prose, that I didn’t want to read. Her story lacks tension, her characters lack interest, and nothing happens.

Apologies to Hobb’s fans, who are legion. Many friends talked up Hobb to me, expounding her glamourless, austere narratives. This, they claim, reflects what life would really resemble in a magically imbued feudal kingdom. Hobb eschews either Tolkein’s Christian idealism or William Morris’ Romantic assurance. I imagine this seemed revolutionary in 1995. Two decades on, when distrust and moral uncertainty are widespread in fantasy, it just feels ordinary.

This novel chugs and wheezes for hundreds of pages, like an engine failing to turn over, never gaining traction, never rolling forward. I kept expecting something to arrest my attention, because I wanted to understand why my friends celebrate Hobb’s storytelling. But finally, exhausted, I set the book aside and hadn’t touched it three days later. I realized, that may be all you need to know about this novel.

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