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Renegade's Magic (The Soldier Son Trilogy, Book Three)
Robin Hobb
HarperCollins Eos, 662 pages

Renegade's Magic (The Soldier Son Trilogy, Book Three)
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: Shaman's Crossing
SF Site Review: The Golden Fool
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

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

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If America has an existentialist fantasist, her name is Robin Hobb. Her writing, unique in a genre overpopulated with adolescent sword-and-sorcery epics, avoids tired retreads of the quest format perfected over a century ago through the prose-poetry of Lord Dunsany and the mythopoeic majesty of E.R. Eddison. It earns mention in the small but elite company of writers whose methods -- ranging as wide as the multilayered complexity of Robert Jordan, the bracing realism of George R.R. Martin, and the philosophical literacy of Philip Pullman -- are producing a renaissance in the field. Rather than offering mindless escapism, Robin Hobb's works utilize fantasy conventions to explore weighty concepts such as identity and fellowship, rights and duties, and permanence and change. In Renegade's Magic, the third and conclusive novel of The Soldier Son series, she wields her singular storytelling strength, the first-person narrative, with great facility to dramatize the perspectival upheaval ensuing from the clash of civilizations. The result is a thoughtful meditation on the idea of progress, a Hegelian fantasy that adulterates Tolstoy's notion of historical inevitability with a tincture of magic to show how time, chance, and (perhaps) providence hide in the shadows of life.

We rejoin our hero, Nevare Burvelle, after his escape from a lynching, itself precipitated by his escape from a sentence of flogging and hanging following his court-martial for murder and necrophilia. These travails follow those of the second book, in which Nevare, a soldier cadet of landed gentry, recovered from a plague only to find his physique irreversibly growing to Brobdignagian proportions. Dismissed from the Academy, he returns home only to encounter shame from his father and rejection from his fiancée. The course of his life, he realizes by the end of the second book, is implacably predetermined by the magic of the forest-dwelling aboriginals (the Speck) with which he was touched as a teenager and his soul cleft in twain. Now literally fat with magic, Nevare is cut off from any fellowship with his past life until he discovers a way to discharge this surfeit of the supernatural. The narrative tension of Renegade's Magic unfolds through Nevare's quest to make whole his own sundered consciousness by making whole his two worlds, in which the modernizing Gernians are fomenting war by entrenching upon the sacred forests of the tribal Specks.

Hobb's landscape mirrors that of eighteenth-century North America, where Native Americans and European settlers clashed over not only land but the preservation of their way of life. Indeed, as Nevare's Speck consciousness wrests control of his body from his Gernian consciousness and he "goes native," the situation clearly recalls other famous narratives of the Westerner and the Other. Partaking equally of the ferocity of Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohican and the reflection of John Dunbar of Dances with Wolves, Nevare assumes a mantle of leadership of the Specks with shades of Lawrence of Arabia.

And just as she takes her time in sketching Nevare's warring states of consciousness, Hobb is in no hurry to advance her plot through breathless action, which she could accomplish in half the number of pages. Her method is like slow food. The action reaches a boil at key moments, but mostly simmers throughout 600-plus pages in order to allow the reader to soak in the rich ambience of the novel, such as observations on cultural relativism. To modern Gernians, Nevare's obesity is perceived as slothful, undisciplined, and morbid. To pastoral Specks, however, it is a reflection of the natural abundance of the earth and the favor of the gods. His girth makes him grand -- a disability transfigured into an advantage, an inversion of the plight of the full-sighted man in H.G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind."

Hobb's enthusiasm is especially evident in passages describing Nevare's feasts upon the natural, organic goodness of the earth, conveyed in such fervent tones of holistic ecstasy as would make even Michael Pollan blush:

"Everything that was edible, he ate. Mushrooms in a clump growing in the shade, and then young fat bracket fungi that grew like shelves on the stumps of dying trees he ate. He found fallen cones and sat on the ground amid the prickly things to shake out the plump seeds and eat them. [S]eed heads . . . where the flowers had once been . . . . were his prize. He ate them, cracking the seeds between his teeth and spitting out the shells. Their flavor was rich and brown and sweet. Colors seemed brighter after he had consumed them and the scents of the forest stronger."
On a larger scale, the author succeeds in her use of the narrative-within-a-narrative that constitutes Nevare's dueling consciousnesses. The method could have grown tiresome, or proven too complicated, but Hobb skillfully plays with it to amplify the reader's anxiety over the story's moral dilemmas. Her resolution of the novel is, like her characters' lives, mixed. She addresses the larger predicament of the clash between the Specks and the Gernians in a far more convincing manner than Orson Scott Card did in his fantasy-alternate-North-American-history The Seventh Son series. But her treatment of the rethreading of Nevare's soul is less satisfactory because it appears to lack either, under one interpretation, consistency or, under another, consequence. Hobb is a storytelling wizard, but here she overestimates the power of her magic to let her have her cake and eat it too.

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog, readslikealawyer.blogspot.com, is always wide awake, though.


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