Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb

cover art for Fool's Errand, featuring two pale skinned men, one of whom has long white hair, riding black and white horses down a hill with a wolf beside them
Y'all know by now that this is just me talking about books I love, right? You're not expecting, like, a proper review?

Good. Glad we got that sorted. On to the part where I talk.

If you've known me for any length of time, you've heard me mention the eight books I've loved from the first word to the last.

FOOL'S ERRAND is one of them1.

It's all down to the first chapter, which is absolutely perfect on every level--provided you've read the Farseer Trilogy, that is. I can't speak for how it reads to a newcomer, but to someone like me, who loved the hell out of the first three Fitz books, it's pure gold.

Speaking of which: you probably want to read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, ROYAL ASSASSIN, and ASSASSIN'S QUEST before you start FOOL'S ERRAND. Add SHIP OF MAGIC, MAD SHIP and SHIP OF DESTINY to your reading list, too; they also impact this series via a couple of overlapping characters and a game-changing addition to the world's population.

I want y'all to get the most out of these books, so I'm sorry, but you're gonna have to fulfill some prerequisites before you dive in.

Once you're all caught up, though, FOOL'S ERRAND is a welcome opportunity to reunite with beloved characters in a beloved setting, and to wait for them to fuck up spectacularly.

Isn't that what fiction is all about?

Summary time. It's been about fifteen years since ASSASSIN'S QUEST (and somewhat less than that since SHIP OF DESTINY). Fitz has retired to a remote cottage where he spends most of his time writing things, being sad, and worrying about his adopted son. He tells himself he's quite content to remain aloof from the court at Buckkeep, but the court is far less willing to remain aloof from him. Chade wants him to come be Skillmaster to Prince Dutiful, who may also share Fitz's Wit. The Fool insists they need to save the world (again). Fitz refuses both requests, but when Dutiful disappears from Buckkeep under mysterious circumstances, he feels he has no choice but to return to the world.

The book does move a little more slowly than I recalled, but since I read it in just over twenty-four hours the first time through, that's only to be expected2. Some of the tensions that initially carried me through it weren't such a drive on a second reading, since I already knew the story's basic shape, but the moments between the characters were still more than enough to keep me absorbed and engaged.

With her usual flare for foreshadowing, Hobb establishes a number of key details whilst delivering a story with its own satisfying heft. FOOL'S ERRAND is very much about resuming old patterns, and discovering that the world doesn't stop moving forward just because you've stepped away from it. Fitz returns to Buckkeep, but he can't simply take up his old life there. The wartime arrangements that ruled his childhood have long been dismantled, and the events of ROYAL ASSASSIN render him unable to live under his real name or rekindle the relationships he enjoyed with the keep's staff and guardsmen. He's even obliged to rethink how he relates to Chade, the Fool, and Kettricken. Age has placed him on a much more equal footing with Chade (with a few notable exceptions), while he and the Fool are cast into the difficult roles of master and servant lest anyone recognize them. Kettricken plays a much smaller role in both the story and Fitz's life as she's occupied with the affairs of state and can only meet with her most secret of relatives in, well, secret.

With Dutiful, too, he finds himself on uneasy footing. Fitz knows exactly why Dutiful manifests the Wit, and he knows he shouldn't view the boy as any sort of a son, but he can't quite help himself from looking at Dutiful in that way. (I love body-switching. It's so confusing.) He judges Dutiful not just as a person but also as a product of his own body, if not his soul. And Dutiful comes up wanting, and Fitz knows he should be disappointed in him as a future ruler if he's going to be disappointed in him for anything, but he struggles to feel that Dutiful isn't really his child.

Fitz-as-parent is a fairly big theme going forward as he examines his right to claim any of his children, biological or otherwise, and his responsibilities towards the lot of them. Hobb renders the process realistically messy.

I should note, too, that Fitz's disappointment in Dutiful-as-future-ruler is entirely understandable, even as it's clear to the reader that Dutiful makes mistakes because he's young. Fitz, at thirty-five, is no longer quite so good at acknowledging that Dutiful's errors spring from a lack of experience more than anything else. Dutiful is fifteen, he's in lust, and he feels he has nowhere to turn as he deals with a magic that's been outlawed throughout his kingdom. It's not that he's totally incapable of doing the right thing, or of acknowledging his mistakes. He's just a kid who's made bad choices and who now needs a chance to make up for it.

Fitz conveniently forgets that he did just as much stupid shit when he was fifteen. Though, to be fair, he wasn't the sole heir to the throne when he rushed around making bad decision after bad decision.

Moving in another direction entirely (or maybe not so much), FOOL'S ERRAND highlights drug use to the same extent as the previous books; which is to say, there's a lot of it. This society doesn't stigmatize drug users, so nobles make frequent use of various pleasure herbs (read: marijuana-equivalents), everyone eats mind-altering seeds on special occasions, and Fitz himself is addicted to painkillers.

Not that he'll admit it. He informs us that while some people claim you can be addicted to elfbark, he's never found that to be the case. Never mind how he keeps on taking it even after Kettle tells him it could destroy his Skill (on which he's also dependent), or how he begs and pleads for even the slightest dose when he's forced to go without. He's not addicted. Nope.

Stories about addiction fascinate me, and this one holds a particular attraction for me because it's the most obvious way in which Fitz lies to himself. I'm inclined to think he lies to himself often and at great length, really--it's one of the things that makes him such a fascinating narrator--but this is the clearest example of his tendency to write the truth as he'd have us see it, not as he actually knows it.

He doesn't avoid describing his withdrawal symptoms, though, any more than he shies away from other small details that show us what's really going on behind his version of events. So I suppose he's a character who's somewhat honest with the reader, even as he continues to lie to himself even about his own tendency to lie to himself.

I love it.

Given his cagey approach to his elfbark addiction, it's somewhat surprising how open he is about his Skill addiction. He tells us straight out that yes, he is compelled to use the Skill (which: basically telepathy with benefits) even when he knows it's a bad idea, and that this is a big problem for pretty well anyone with any aptitude for the magic. He discusses it, he elaborates on it, and he admits to it--until he suddenly falls silent on the subject.

Interesting, that. I suppose you can view it as Hobb backing away from an idea without fully exploring it, but I'd rather think of it as another way Fitz lies to himself.

As much as I usually connect with stories about addiction, I'm generally not a big fan of magic-as-addiction3 and have been trying to figure out why I'm okay with it here. I think it's is partly because I love the rest of the package so much, partly because Fitz's eventual silence on the matter intrigues me, and partly because there's never any real sense that he's going to stop using the Skill just because he's addicted to it. This is terrible of me, but a big part of why I dislike magic-as-addiction is that it takes something wonderful--something literally magical--and makes it bad.

Don't get me wrong; I like consequential magic in general, but I'm less fond of the idea that one of those consequences is an all-consuming addiction. It feels like a cheat; something to stop magic from being quite so great. Which, again, is weird, because I have absolutely no problem with, say, magic that consumes one's bodily resources (which the Skill also does), or requires difficult-to-source components, or demands some sort of a sacrifice.

Really, I'm maddeningly inconsistent when it comes to my attitude towards consequential magic. I suppose my own biases colour my reaction.

Anyways: I love the hell out of this book. I want you to read it, but get your prerequisites in first, okay? Don't go in blind.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read FOOL'S ERRAND, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through one of the links above.

  1. The others are:

    THE BLACK TULIP by Alexandre Dumas
    SWORDSPOINT by Ellen Kushner
    THE SECRET COUNTESS by Eva Ibbotson
    SANTA OLIVIA by Jacqueline Carey
    THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater

  2. I made the mistake of starting it late on a Saturday evening. I ended up staying awake until past two to read, then getting up super early so I could jump right back in. Some books are worthy losing sleep.

  3. Two TV shows that prominently showcase (and then back away from) magic-as-addiction are BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ONCE UPON A TIME. And no, I didn't like how either of them handled it.


  1. I have this on my TBR pile! This and the other two Fool books! But I have only read Assassin's Apprentice and that was ages ago, so I'd definitely need to reread it first (and then read the others, of course). Now I know which order to read them in, yay!

  2. That was my pattern! I read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, then kind of forgot about it, then reread it and caught up on all the other books and fell totally in love.

    I hope you'll fall totally in love too.