A reviewer once said that Robin Hobb’s novels are ‘like diamonds in a sea of zircons’ and it is easy to see why. I’ve said previously that Robin Hobb appears to be one of the few fantasy authors writing today who really seems to understand the importance of language and Mythic Resonance in her novels. Hobb’s stories are not simply made up of breathless action scenes linked up by perfunctory passages which serve simply to get her protagonists from A to B. Instead (thankfully) they contain rich, fluid prose which recalls the work of Peake, Tolkien, Le Guin and other masters of the genre rather than many of their considerably less talented modern counterparts. It is therefore perhaps not surprising to hear that Hobb’s creative spark was lit by an early reading of The Lord of the Rings in the dark cold of an Alaskan winter way back in 1965. As a child who grew up in a log house in a rural setting in Fairbanks in the sixties, most of the fantasy books that Hobb had come across before then were explicitly for children and/or did not take themselves particularly seriously. While she had discovered, and loved, the works of Leiber, Heinlein, Bradbury and others, in her own words Tolkien claimed Hobb as no other writer ever had before. The aspects of The Lord of the Rings which Hobb most enjoyed – a fully realised setting, characters that rang as true as chimes, a plot that sprawled in odd directions and universal human themes of courage, compassion, loyalty, honour and friendship – she took care to import into her own writing. And it shows.
Most people think of Hobb’s writing career as having started with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first of her books to be set in the ‘Realm of the Elderlings’, in 1995. However, she had been writing under the pseudonym of Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb is also a pen-name, her real one being Margaret Ogden) for many years before that. Hobb’s fiction under the Lindholm pen-name tends to be contemporary/historical fantasy rather than the epic fantasy that she is now better known for. The first Robin Hobb series, the Farseer trilogy, took place in a part of the Realm of the Elderlings known as the Six Duchies. It is the tale of Fitz, son of Prince Chivalry, a royal bastard born on the wrong side of the sheets then cast out into the world, friendless and alone. Only his magical link with animals – the old art known as the Wit – gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility. So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and learn a new life: one of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners… and lessons in how to kill a man secretly as he trains to become a royal assassin. A totally original, refreshing and often anarchic take on the traditional epic fantasy saga, the Farseer trilogy proved to be one of the landmark fantasy series of the 1990s and was succeeded by the even more impressive Liveship Traders trilogy, an unrelated story set in the same world, and the Tawny Man trilogy, which continued and concluded the tale of Fitz.
Hobb’s fiction has been massively influential within the genre – indeed it has been said that she has ‘set the standard for the modern serious fantasy novel’. Her books are distinguished by their length, complexity, fully realised characters and ornate, patient prose. At the same time, despite the often more personal nature of the conflicts that they depict, Hobb’s novels are every bit as epic in scope as those of George R R Martin or Robert Jordan, both of whom have praised her work highly. However, she is not without her detractors. While I personally can find almost nothing in the brilliant Farseer trilogy to complain about, Hobb’s trademark lengthy prose is definitely a disadvantage at times in her later work. This is first evident in the Liveship Traders and Tawny Man books, which are guilty at times of padding – there are several sub-plots in both series which seem a little superfluous and unnecessary, especially given the books’ already wrist-spraining size. However, whilst this is forgivable in these series (personally, I’m always happy to spend more time in the Realm of the Elderlings!), it becomes a real problem for the first time in Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy. Set in a new world unrelated to her previous trilogies, the Soldier Son saga follows the life of Nevare Burvelle, the second son of a newly elevated lord of the kingdom of Gernia, and his preparation for and education at the King’s Cavalla Academy. Unlike her other series’, this work draws strongly on myths of the American Frontier. This potentially intriguing premise is let down by the fact that the first half of book one, Shaman’s Crossing, is, quite frankly, long and boring. While the intrinsic quality of Hobb’s prose still shines, nothing interesting really happens until at least half way though the book and the writing style is a bit of a departure, lacking the flow and interesting twists and turns of her previous titles. Unsurprisingly, the Soldier’s Son trilogy attracted a far more lukewarm response from Hobb’s fans than her other books, garnering only an average of three stars on Amazon.
So what are we to make of this? Unfortunately the direction Hobb’s books have taken is by no means an isolated example of the phenomena of quantity seemingly being put in front of quality in the field of fantasy. Jordan and Martin are perhaps the most obvious examples of authors whose careers have taken a similar path to Hobb’s but there are many, many more. To this day I am not entirely sure whether the pressure for making books longer comes from the writers themselves, their publishers, their agents or their fans. All that I know is that in the past few years I have lost count of the number of fantasy books that I have started reading only to lose interest because a potentially fascinating premise got swamped by unnecessary wordage (I’m not sure whether that’s a word or not but it will do). I’ve said it many times before and I’ll keep on saying it – there is nothing wrong with a short fantasy novel! Equally, I’m not for a second suggesting that a lengthy fantasy novel must automatically be bad either – far from it. However, consider the fact that the following fantasy, horror and sci-fi stories all clock in at about three hundred regular pages in paperback (or much less in some cases): A Wizard of Earthsea, The Colour of Magic, Ill Met in Lankhmar, Elric of Melnibone, Legend, Dragonflight, The Last Unicorn, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Dark is Rising, Dracula, The Time Machine, The Moon of Gomrath, I am Legend, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Summer Tree, Tarzan, The Black Cauldron, Bedlam’s Bard, Neverwhere, Dune Messiah, The Snow Spider, The Lost World, The House on the Borderland, Conan the Barbarian, The Difference Engine, The Forever War, The Broken Sword, Mythago Wood, Prospero’s Children, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Hobbit. I rest my case…