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Fool's Errand,
The Tawny Man, Book One

Robin Hobb
HarperCollins/Voyager, 584 pages

Art: John Howe
Fool's Errand
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: 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

Robin Hobb may well be the best author today writing traditional high fantasy.  A large statement, perhaps, but taken within the context noted, readily defended.  Unexcelled in the depth of her characterizations, and the equal of any when it comes to the creation of an alternate society, Hobb's work is as much about the study of human character as it is about fantasy or the trappings of a mythical world.  Nor, as an author, is she dependent upon mere action through which to drive her words, allowing her stories to naturally unfold around both the mundane and more singular events occurring in her narratives, with a sureness of grip upon her plot lines that has much improved since her writings as Megan Lindholm and her first Farseer novels, becoming as tight and well-spun in craft as any currently offered in the genre.  All of this has allowed her to weave together an evolving and inter-related series of tales that possess a depth of realism and complexity, a multi-faceted and invigorated cast of characters, with a maturity and intelligence rarely seen in fantasy, and that, while drawing from the traditions of the genre, has largely been rewritten to serve individual and at times very different ends from what has gone before, in ways subtle yet dramatic.  Anyone who has read the author's reinventions of ship or dragon lore, particularly in Liveship Traders, will recognize what I am referring to.  In this respect, in many ways she has revitalized old and seemingly worn out traditions.

In Fool's Errand we return to a world by now fully realized, and substantially expanded upon in The Liveship Traders.  Unlike the multiple perspectives and plot lines that so significantly embellished that tale, providing a layering of stories that distinctly enriched her work, Hobb steps back from Bingtown to the singular and, based upon readers' comments, much loved character of Fitz, Buckkeep, and the Six Duchies of her original Farseer series.  Fifteen years have passed since the events of that popular trilogy, and Fitz continues to live in obscurity with his stepson and Witted companion.  Both Fitz and Nighteyes have aged comfortably, if uneventfully, their days of adventure, assassination, Skilling and the court long behind them, if not entirely forgotten.  Fitz has taken on the persona of Tom Badgerlock, a reclusive writer of history and a gardener, raising his stepson in a remote cottage near Forge, spending his evenings before the warmth of a fire.  While he and Nighteyes still talk of the hunt, it is often only as fond memory, the comforts of the hearth more beckoning.  In the fifteen years that have passed, Fitz has never once seen Molly, nor his old friends or either of his real children.  But for Nighteyes and his stepson, Hap, Fitz is as alone and forgotten as when we left him at the end of Assassin's Quest.  However, the unexpected return of old friends, as well as disappearances at court, are soon to force Fitz from his self-imposed exile and retirement.

For fans of the first series, this will seem like a fond reunion with old friends, a revisit to a world already familiar and grown comfortable through reacquaintance.  However, like Wolfe's admonishment, neither Fitz nor the reader is allowed to simply revisit the past, regardless of how tempting, and the author uses this return to old ground to expand upon the magic and history of her realm, exploring both the Wit and Skilling in ways only glimpsed in previous books.  Nor have events in the Six Duchies remained static during the interim: new threats, this time internal, menace the peace established since the Red Ship War, while old dangers are hinted at, looming over the horizon.  And, as the land has changed, so too have many of the characters, and Fitz will find himself compelled to rescue a son he's never met while losing one of those most dear to him.  In the process, Hobb breathes fresh life back into an earlier tale that remains bittersweet, and in a way not simply a continuance of all that has gone before.

While there is a certain loss of richness and diversity in abandoning the multiple perspectives and story lines turned to in Liveship Traders, I suspect that many readers will find this more than adequately offset by the depth of characterization and understanding presented by Fitz's singular view and telling of the story.  As in earlier openings to her trilogies, Hobb is in no rush to propel her story along, spending almost 200 pages in re-establishing Fitz's character as well as the setting of events about to unfold.  For those habituated to action to drive a story along, this will doubtless prove slow slogging.  But for those who turn to reading for reasons other than fireballs and endless swordplay, or intrigues to confound the Gordian Knot, there are rewards in Hobb's "deeply involved humanity" that will more than adequately recompense waiting for the plot to thicken and the pace to gain momentum.  In many ways Hobb's writing and approach to story development can be likened to those authors of the mid to late 19th century, who, like Hobb, were concerned with first placing their narratives upon a solid footing of character and setting, letting their tales evolve subtly, recognizing the greater drama and more involved impact resulting when their stories quickened.  Unlike many of her contemporaries, the author has learned this lesson well, and when action does arrive, it is often with an impending build in the narrative that is much more compelling and emotionally engaging than the repetitive and often over-utilized dependence by others upon drama to carry what otherwise would be a largely vacuous or one dimensional story.  A difference in approach I imagine that will separate those seeking narrative richness from those seeking only simpler entertainment.

While obviously the start of another trilogy -- a format Hobb seems to favour -- this novel nonetheless possesses a sense of unity and closure for which many readers may feel grateful, as the author largely and gratifyingly avoids the manipulative cliff-hanger that seems to have become standard for most of today's series.  While Hobb has followed this practice before, in degree this is perhaps her most deft and satisfying handling of a single volume's conclusion, and may offer promise in the one area where the author has previously shown a weakness: the final closure to her multi-volume epics.  Hopefully we will not see a repeat of the rushed and fumbled "they-all-lived-happily-ever-after" end that concluded Liveship Traders.  Nonetheless, as with that series, Fool's Errand represents work by a writer working possibly at the peak of her ability (dare we expect more!).  For the more serious reader of traditional high fantasy, such work must truly represent a blessing.  

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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