Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review: The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb

cover art for The Golden Fool, featuring two pale skinned people. One of them, presumably a young woman with long, dark hair, has her back to the audience to display colourful tattoos of dragons. The other, a man wearing a quilted coat, looks at the design.
Whenever I talk about "those books that damned near give you a heart attack," I'm talking about THE GOLDEN FOOL1.

There's so much tension here. There are so many bad decisions.

Like, remember how I said the whole point of fiction is to wait for characters to fuck up spectacularly?

The wait is over.

If you've read my previous Hobb reviews, you've probably gathered I"m deeply fond of Fitz2. This doesn't mean I never want to punch him3. I spent large swathes of THE GOLDEN FOOL desperately wishing I could reach into the book and do just that, because he's often so stupid about everyone else. And, like, I can see why he behaves the way he does--Hobb is awfully good at endowing her characters with believable motivations that become even more fascinating once you sit back and consider the work as a whole--but it's still so frustrating.

At least, it's frustrating after the fact. As I've said before, the really interesting thing about Fitz's choices is that they almost always seem sensible until he's reached the point of no return and everything goes to pot. Reader and character realize the error at the same time, something Hobb's able to pull off because she leave almost no distance between us and Fitz.

She can make me forget I'm reading a book. Y'all know how rare that is for a suspicious reader like me.

Anyways: many (though certainly not all) of Fitz's mistakes come back to his inability to trust anyone. He makes poor choices because he doesn't feel he can rely on anyone else to choose for him, and he spends a lot of time apologizing to people for gaffs he could have avoided if he'd recognized that others can be responsible for their own actions and can know their own minds.

He's also ready to write people off at the slightest sign of trouble, something I find particularly distressing where Hap is concerned. The kid is his son in every way that counts, and Fitz refers to him as such throughout all three books, but he's convinced he needs to cut Hap out of his life as soon as Hap starts living in a way he disagrees with. He struggles to trust that Hap needs to make his own choices, even if they're poor ones, and to realize that it's important to nurture these sorts of connections even when things become difficult. He backs away from any situation where he feels like he's failed. Even when he realizes he has a tendency to isolate himself, he's not entirely sure how to change his course.

There's a solid reason he behaves this way, of course--something beyond the trust issues--but still. Frustrating.

And nowhere is it more frustrating than in his friendship with the Fool. Hell, that friendship comes with tension to spare, since Fitz obviously loves the Fool (and cites him as the only person he really trusts. Aw, and also sadness), but the Fool is in love with Fitz and that's a rather different thing. Plus, we know by this point that the Fool is genderfluid, so there's a certain amount of oh-god-I-hope-Hobb-doesn't-do-awful-things tension (at least the first time you read it). You've gotta hope the resolution doesn't destroy who the characters are.

There's also Paragon, floating around down south wearing Fitz's face4. Which I think is pretty great, but I can understand why Fitz feels differently.

Oh, friends. Fitz's falling-out with the Fool WOUNDS MY SOUL5. It's mostly Fitz's fault, and we can't help but see it coming, but it's still difficult to read.

It puts me in mind, too, of something Ana once said to me: that fiction so seldom acknowledges that solid friendships often require as much work as enduring romances. I'm not sure if fictional friendships with rocky patches are exactly uncommon, since friends-who-disagree is a common trope throughout contemporary fiction, but I've rarely seen it dealt with so messily, and so realistically, as it is here.

That's a shame, really, because this sort of conflict is wonderfully painful. And wonderful pain is storytelling gold.

It's probably a good thing Hobb doesn't endow all her characters' friendships with this sort of drama, though, or her books really would give me a heart attack. Kettricken was largely absent from FOOL'S ERRAND, what with the need for secrecy and all that, but she has a greater presence here. And I absolutely adore everything that passes between her and Fitz. There are times when they miss each others' point (Fitz frequently misses peoples' points, or fails to state his own case in a manner others can understand), and Kettricken's got that iron sense of duty, but for the most part they have the sort of solid, supportive friendship I revel in. I'm always pleased with texts that acknowledge that friendship can flourish between hetero (or bisexual) men and women, so even though y'all know I ship them like crazy I really can't be upset about what we get here.

That said, my wee shipper's heart loves the scenes between them in that light, too. There's this part where they're like, "Look at us! We're practically siblings!" and I'm like, "No you're not. Just kiss already."

Remember, kids, shipping makes you stupid. Just say no.

I think that's enough blathering, don't you? THE GOLDEN FOOL continues the trend of me loving the hell out of Hobb's middle books. (Ain't it nice when an author consistently writes really stellar middle books?) I think I love it even more than FOOL'S ERRAND now; a nice surprise indeed.

Oh! One last note! I'm not sure if it's the same across all editions, but the jacket copy on the original UK mass market paperback contains a pretty major spoiler for the end of FOOL'S ERRAND. Seven years ago, I perused it6 somewhat before I finished the first book, and I promptly vowed I would never again glance at a sequel's jacket copy. I've stuck to that, and my life has been better for it.


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 THE GOLDEN FOOL, you can try:

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

  1. Or THE VIRTU by Sarah Monette. The first time I read THE VIRTU, I was all, "This is exactly like THE GOLDEN FOOL! Only, completely different!" Because I damned near keeled over from all the tension there, too, and tension that damned near makes you keel over is a greater indicator of sameness than pesky details like setting or characterization.

  2. Writing these not-really-reviews has opened my eyes to just how much he interests me. I'm even considering giving him a spot on my Highly Exclusive List of Favourite Literary Characters, where the Fool already dwells.

    For the record, the list also contains Mildmay Foxe from Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series, Felix Harrowgate from same, Jean Tannen from Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards sequence, Malta Vestrit from Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy, and Mat Cauthon from Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. I scrubbed the list clean of everyone except Mildmay and Felix a year or two back when I realized it had been for bloody ever since I actually read any of the books the characters hailed from. It's filled up again quite nicely (and I must say, I'm surprised at delighted that Mat still warrants a place. He's my one old-timers).

    Alumni of the Highly Exclusive List include Reepicheep from C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Fflewddur Fflam from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Drizzt Do'Urden from R.A. Salvatore's Legend of Drizzt series, Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, Louis de Pointe du Lac from Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Lestat de Lioncourt from same, and Marius Pontmercy from Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES.

    Yeah, it's male-heavy. I need to work on that. My Highly Exclusive List of Favourite Television Characters is predominantly female, but the dudes monopolize literature.

    It's almost like there's a cultural bias in play or something...

    Anyway; yes; what the hell. Let's add Fitz to the list, too. You heard it here first.

  3. I almost always want to punch my favourites at some point or another. They're not my favourites because I'm totally on board with everything they do; they're my favourites because I find them really fucking interesting. My interests steer me towards (fictional) fuck-ups and jackasses more often than not.

  4. One wonders why none of the Bingtown delegates besides Jek says, "Hey, I know a ship that looks exactly like you, only crazier." I suppose we can assume the rest of them overlook him on account of the whole servant thing, but Selden and Fitz have an actual conversation and Selden must have met Paragon at some point.

    Maybe Selden does recognize him and I've forgotten. I'm away from home right now so I can't pluck my book off the shelf and check.

  5. This is the part where I moan about how they have my favourite friendship in all of fiction.

  6. I almost never read jacket copy--I find it unbearably corny--but I'll sometimes skim it for keywords so I have a rough idea of what the story involves. Sometimes; not always. For example, I didn't so much as peek at the copy for FOOL'S ASSASSIN. The title told me everything I needed to know.


  1. This book sounds fantastic! I've never heard of it or the author before.

    1. GASP! Vasilly, you must read Robin Hobb. She's fabulous.