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The Golden Fool
Robin Hobb
HarperCollins Voyager UK / Bantam Spectra US, 632 pages

The Golden Fool
The Golden Fool
Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb, aka Megan Lindholm, was born in California in 1952. At the age of about 9 she moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, where she graduated from high school. Later, after a brief stint at the University of Denver where she majored in Mass Communications, she married and moved back up to Alaska, where she started writing under her maiden name. She started publishing her short stories about twenty years ago in small magazines. Shortlisted for the 1989 Nebula Awards in the categories of novella ("A Touch of Lavender" -- also a 1990 Hugo Award nominee) and novelette ("Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man"), she was also nominated for the Nebula for her short story "Cut." She lives in Tacoma, Washington.

Robin Hobb Website
ISFDB Bibliography: Robin Hobb
ISFDB Bibliography: Megan Lindholm
SF Site Review: Fool's Errand
SF Site Review: Mad Ship
SF Site Review: Ship of Magic
SF Site Review: The Farseer Trilogy
SF Site Review: The Farseer: Assassin's Quest
SF Site Review: The Farseer: Royal Assassin
Robin Hobb Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

In the beginning of the world, there were the Old Blood folk and the beasts of the fields, the fish in the water and the birds of the sky. All lived together in balance if not in harmony. Among the Old Blood folk, there were but two tribes. One was comprised of blood-takers, who were the people who bonded to creatures who ate the flesh of other creatures. And the other folk were the blood-givers, and they bonded to those who ate only plants. The two tribes had nothing to do with each other, no more than a wolf has to do with a sheep; that is, they met only in death. Yet each respected the other as an element of the land, just as a man respects both a tree and a fish.

Now, the laws that separated them were stern laws and just. But there are always people who think they know better than the law, or think that in their special situation, an exception should be made for them. So it was when the daughter of a blood-taker, bonded to a fox, fell in love with the son of a blood-giver, bonded to an ox. What harm, they thought, could come of their love? They would do no injury to one another, neither woman to man nor fox to ox. And so they both went apart from their own peoples, lived in their love and in time brought forth children of their own. But of their children, the first son was a blood-taker and the first daughter was a blood-giver. And the third was a poor witless child, deaf to every animal of every kind and doomed always to walk only in his own skin. Great was the sorrow of the family when their eldest son bonded to a wolf and their eldest daughter to a deer. For his wolf killed her deer, and she took the life of her brother in recompense. Then they knew the wisdom of the oldest ways, for a predator cannot bond with prey. But worse was to come, for their witless child sired only witless children, and thus were born the folk who are deaf to all the beasts of the world.
Badgerlock's Old Blood Tales

Like a spider slowly spinning its web -- a strand spun here, a thread strung there -- Robin Hobb's story slowly evolves until, almost unaware, the reader is ensnared. Since Farseer, it has almost become almost a signature, tales that increasingly are pinned upon foundations gradually laid, plot lines whose long development are not immediately apparent. There is a lingering on detail, a charting of the author's world and a fascination with its characters that in its emerging evolution creates a physical and social landscape more complete and less intrusive than is typical of epic fantasy, without recourse to gaudy display or dependence upon flashy magic and over-wrought swordsmanship. Those seeking adventure long on action won't find it here. Instead, in many respects the author has grounded her fantasy within what, in her hands, could be almost called the prosaic, and in the process, ironically, elevated it.

While The Golden Fool is not without its moments of drama and tension, perhaps more than any of her previous work this is primarily a character study, an exploration of relationships as well as a further building upon the history and legends surrounding The Witted. Those who have been following the author's earlier series -- in my opinion a prerequisite for any full appreciation of what is taking place here -- will find themselves rewarded with revelations related to the earlier books, as well as tantalizing hints as to what may be in store for the future. Further connections are drawn between the Bingtown Traders and past and recent events in the Six Duchies, and characters from both of her previous series make reappearances. The Fool is revealed to possess yet another persona, and throughout the novel there is an impending sense of momentous events to come.

Yet the primary focus is upon FitzChivalry in his guise as Tom Badgerlock, and his changing and evolving relationships, not only with his friends and secret family, but in a more mature understanding of himself. He has grudgingly returned to his former role with the Farseers as spy and assassin, once again working with his childhood mentor, Chade. But no longer a child, he finds his earlier relationship with Chade has changed, with both men withholding secrets from one another, and an increasing tension existing between the two as their goals are no longer perceived as always being identical. Fitz's foster-son has begun his own life in Bucktown, one which begins to place both of them at odds, and a falling out occurs between Tom Badgerlock and Lord Golden that threatens to become permanent. And, with the loss of his wit-partner in the previous book, Fitz in some ways feels himself increasingly isolated, reflecting on the past as well as the present to discover that not all of his decisions and actions, despite their best intentions, have turned out as he had hoped. As in Fool's Errand, Hobb increasingly turns her attention towards an exploration of her main character's introspective and evolving knowledge of himself, reflections that all too often leave Fitz wanting, or doubtful as to the future. In doing so, the author illuminates a human condition far too familiar for most of us.

Behind his internal struggles emerge various potential threats to the Farseers. Though Fitz and the Fool rescued Dutiful from the plots of the Piebalds, it came at great cost to Fitz personally, and the original threat still remains: that both he and Dutiful will be revealed as being Witted. Laudwine still lives and the Piebalds secretly continue their efforts to overthrow the Farseer reign, persecuting those Old Bloods who will not join them, fanning the flames of hatred between Witted and the rest of the population. Dutiful's arranged bethrothal to the Outislands' narcheska unfolds badly, with evidence that someone unknown is forcing the young women into this political marriage, which neither the narcheska nor Prince Dutiful personally desire. The end result is a mutual challenge between the two that may place both at risk. And matters become further complicated by the unexpected arrival of emissaries from Bingtown who seek an alliance against Chalced that mysteriously appears to disturb the Outislanders, threatening to undo the marriage negotiations. In order to help protect the Prince and the Farseer throne, a most unlikely Skill-coterie is eventually formed.

Throughout the novel Hobb expands upon her magical elements of Skilling and The Witted, while at the same time never allowing them to dominate the more central human themes of her story. As implied earlier, her incorporation of these elements is comparatively understated, developed gradually and in a manner that seems to make them almost ordinary and naturally occurring within their setting. Loosely borrowing perhaps certain notions from Andre Norton's earlier Beastmaster (though possibly pure coincidence), Hobb has adapted the premise of men and women attuned and sharing the consciousness of animals into a mythos that goes far beyond any original, and as usual with the author's adoption of previous conventions -- be it dragons or sorcery -- completely recontextualized and made it entirely her own. This sets her work apart from most other traditional fantasy, offering a freshness of approach one might have thought exhausted when compared with many of her contemporaries. And, with her increasing emphasis upon characterization and slowly evolving plot development, Hobb brings an almost 19th century literary sensibility to her fantasy, quite unlike any other work currently available.

If I have any quibble with her writing, it is with what I perceive as an unfortunate choice of naming conventions for the books that take place in the Six Duchies. Names like Prince Dutiful, Regal and Chivalry, King Shrewd, Lord Civil or Lady Advantage, seem singularly unimaginative and obvious within the context of writing that in all other respects is quite the opposite, and, despite any stated premise in the Farseer series, seems a lazy or poorly thought-out device that remains bothersome in its continued appearance here. Probably inevitable, as the precedence was set in the first books, but, despite their over time becoming familiar and thus largely ignorable, their presence continues to jar within the context of what in all other aspects is a skillfully and imaginatively written work that draws heavily upon realism in its style of composition.

Golden Fool, like its lead character, is further evidence of an author maturing in her skills, as well as perhaps becoming increasingly comfortable and sure of her audience. Largely abandoning the expected reliance upon action and magic to drive her narratives, the author has instead chosen to increasingly concentrate upon character development and themes of human interest and relationships readily shared and experienced by most of us, in the day to day as well as the inevitable passage of years. Our vulnerability, both real and imagined, is of equal if not greater interest to the author than any momentary heroism, and our ability to both share and alienate our experience is closely explored and examined. With great compassion and understanding, the author portrays her characters with a singularity that nonetheless can be readily recognized both in ourselves and those around us. I suspect that for many of her readers, it is this identification that draws their attention to her books, quite different from the type of voyeurism that attracts others to the heroics and romanticized virtues found elsewhere. While certainly not an approach that will appeal to all, Robin Hobb's recent novels are among the best the genre has to offer.

Copyright © 2003 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction. In addition to his writing, he is pursuing masters degrees in information science as well as history at Indiana University.

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