Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings

11 May

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…

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21 Responses to “Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings”

  1. IntrovertedAnalyst May 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    “there is nothing wrong with a short fantasy novel”

    PREACH IT. Contrary to what some of these writers may think *cough*MARTIN*cough*, we actually don’t need pages upon pages of description of someone’s shield insignias, or of what they ate in what order at a feast. While I love epic novels, I can enjoy shorter and quicker reads, like The Dresden Files or the Kitty Norville books, and not be put out by the fact that they’re a bit on the light side. (Then again, urban fantasy, different rules… but I think the point still stands.) It’s not impossible to tell a good quick story in short time, and being concise and to the point is actually a good thing, or so my journalism training keeps telling me.

  2. ocdreader May 11, 2012 at 3:23 pm #

    Thank you. I hate skimming, but if I am going to finish some of those long books with lists and just way too much description I have to do it or I will put it down and take a long walk! I must confess, I need to pick up a Robin Hobb, I see them all the time but have yet to read one!

    • ashsilverlock May 11, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

      Her work is definitely worth a look – my original copy of ‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ is one of my most treasured books 🙂

      • ocdreader May 12, 2012 at 2:34 pm #

        I will start with that one then, especially since I just found it hiding in my bookshelf! 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Diane Tibert May 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Assassin’s Apprentice. It was my first Hobb’s novel. The writing was refreshing and had a great flow. I’ve been meaning to pick up the second book, but keep forgetting.

    I tend to skim over long descriptions, too, if the book is lengthy and the description isn’t necessary to the story (or particularly boring). I don’t understand the need for long books when a shorter book tells the story just as effectively. I can’t see the trend slowing with ebooks when the sky’s the limit. But again, they’ll only go as far as the market (readers) will withstand. If longer books sell, they’ll keep writing them.

    • ashsilverlock May 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm #

      Trust me, the Fitz books only get better!

      • Diane Tibert May 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

        The odd thing about that novel is that I usually sympathize with the main character, but in this one, I didn’t have much for sympathy for Fitz…I much preferred (I can’t remember his name), the man who had become Fitz’s guardian, the man who cared for the barn, who Fitz lived with when he first went to the castle. All through the novel I hoped he wouldn’t die. lol

  4. Sophie E Tallis May 11, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    A great post! I too have always been a fan of Tolkien. As a geeky (loner) type child, Tolkien’s work affected me like no other and in its eloquent prose, I found a deeply profound love of nature and landscapes that reflected my own. I am not surprised that Robin Hobb found him such an influence. It’s just great to know that in a saturated market, there is still room for more thought provoking and richly layered fantasy, rather than just the exhaustingly fast paced action and blood n’ guts narrative that seems so prevalent at the moment. 🙂

  5. heatherlgraham May 12, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    I definitely hear you on the wandering, rambling verbage that tends to find it’s way into the later works of some of my favorite authors. My theory is that when they become so successful, editors have a harder time convincing them that things need to be cut. After all, how do you tell someone like Martin that they’re rambling?! 🙂 That being said, I’m glad that you pointed me in the direction of an author that I haven’t tried yet. If you throw her name out there with Martin’s and Jordan’s, she’s at least worth a shot!

    • ashsilverlock May 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

      Give her a try, I can almost guarantee that you won’t be disappointed!

    • L.T.L. May 15, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

      i so agree about Martin. i somehow managed the first book of the Ice and Fire, but the rest were plain boring. simultaneously detailed and plain empty. i have no idea how this effect could be reached, but here it is.

  6. Satis May 13, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    Even The Lord of the Rings, taken one book at a time, is fairly succinct when you break it down. 400,000 words between three novels is pretty average length (makes you wonder why Peter Jackson felt they had to be so long!). Oh, and wordage is a word. 😛

  7. L.T.L. May 15, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Thanks for the excellent post!
    i do like the Farseer, and Dragon, and Ship world of Hobb, and i find the descriptions immensely _tasty_. Beautiful without vulgarity, and very, very well-thought through, consistent. i think, there should always be fantasy that is Not Action, but description. A realm to go to for some comfort read. And Hobb’s series are exactly that.

  8. pennyluker May 16, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    I have nominated you for the Inspiring Blog Award. Good Luck.

  9. ilverai January 3, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    Very true statement. This growing trend is partly what fascinates me most about Sanderson. He purposefully hops around between short and long pieces in order to keep the creative juices flowing…and it appears to work for him.

    I also really like Hobb’s books…and agree that the Soldier’s Son trilogy was quite abysmal. Her current series, which follows the previous Elderling novels has been solid, but not quite as good as previous work.

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