Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

Cover of Fool's Quest, featuring a dark-haired white man in medievalesque leather armour. He wields an ax. Ghostly, feathered wings rise above his shoulders.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Before we go any further, I must inform you FOOL’S QUEST is a late-in-series novel. Specifically, it's the second book in the fifth subseries contained within Robin Hobb's wider Realm of the Elderlings series1 (just to keep things simple), so it’s not an ideal starting point. You must read FOOL’S ASSASSIN before this one, and I’d recommend you also go back and read the thirteen books that come before it.

Yep. Thirteen. I know that sounds like the world’s most involved homework assignment, but trust me when I say it’s some of the best homework you’ll ever get. Realm of the Elderlings ranks among my top three series2 for its memorable characters and epic sweep, and both qualities show to best effect when you see the whole thing laid out. Each subseries works well enough on its own, but the whole thing is so much better when you’ve followed the thread right from the beginning.

Since this is both a direct sequel and a late-in-series volume, we shall forgo the usual plot summary. All you really need to know is that FOOL’S QUEST begins immediately after the end of FOOL’S ASSASSIN and deals with what happens next.

And it takes its sweet time about it, which is less of an annoyance and more of an exercise in glorious tension. The reader knows something terrible has happened, but Fitz is still dealing with a completely different terrible thing. We all want to know when he’ll get the news, and how he’ll react, and what sort of fresh hell will break loose as a result, not to mention what all's going on with Bee while Fitz lurks around Buckkeep. (Bee and Fitz continue to share the narration here, as they did in FOOL'S ASSASSIN.) And the longer Hobb makes us wait for it, the higher the tension climbs.

But don’t for a second think this long wait is so much filler. While the reader is desperate to know when Fitz’s storyline will once again intersect with Bee’s, Hobb relieves a number of other tensions that have simmered for a good, long while; sometimes for many thousands of pages, and for years from the reader’s point of view as well as the characters’.

This series more or less runs on secrets. Everyone hides a great many things from everyone else, and at least a dozen of these omissions and deceptions break down throughout the course of FOOL’S QUEST. The Fool (who is now present and accounted for; another release of tension) is far more forthcoming than he’s ever been before. Chade reveals secrets both personal and political to a variety of audiences for a variety of reasons. Kettricken decides to face her magic instead of running from it, even as she brings another long-held secret into the open in as forthright and in-character a manner as one could wish.

Fitz himself has scores of secrets, some of which he keeps on the state’s behalf and some of which are deeply personal, held close either because he doesn’t feel he can fully trust anyone with them or because he’s not ready to deal with the emotional repercussions from their revelation. Many of his secrets, too, eek out over the course of the narrative. The impact is as weighty and consequential as anyone could wish.

Fitz is forced to take on new roles as these secrets come to light, including one he thought he’d shucked off long ago and one he always secretly longed for but never dreamed he’d be invited to assume. Of course, the latter is considerably less pleasant than he imagined. Hobb is awfully good at demonstrating how so often, the price of what we want is getting what once we wanted. Fitz’s body may renew itself periodically, but his soul is still older and entrenched in its ways. It’s difficult for him to adjust to these new limits on his behavior after so many decades of relative freedom from scrutiny. His training helps to a certain extent, but the situation still chafes, especially when he's pushed in directions he'd never have chosen for himself.

Fitz always has had trouble following orders.

On the reader’s side of thing, Fitz’s new roles come equipped with lots of interesting jaw about How Stuff Works as Fitz figures out how to conduct himself. Y’all know how much I love that sort of thing.

The text also encourages Fitz to reconsider some of his more established roles. Most notably, Fitz-as-parent comes up for scrutiny from a new angle. Bee is at the forefront of his mind, of course, and new revelations lead him to wonder who has the right and responsibility to call themselves someone’s parent. How does parenthood work in a world where magic can sometimes ensure a child has three or more parents? Should he consider Dutiful his son after all, even though his soul wasn’t present during Dutiful’s conception? And how should one reconcile parentage with the whole notion of bastardry, where a parent may acknowledge their child without having the legal right to bestow the privileges of legitimate birth on them? Does bastardry even carry much weight anymore, given some of what happens here? It’s all fascinating stuff, and it remains a continual preoccupation even when Hobb backs away to focus on other things.

Such as Fitz-as-assassin. Fitz has never been coy about his training or the fact that he’s used it on numerous occasions, but neither has he ever been this frank about it. He mentions a lot of old kills for the first time, and we see just how ruthless he can be when he has a personal stake in the game. Before, he’s always been able to say he killed people because it was necessary for the good of the state because of reasons. He’s always been horrendously bad about following orders and trusting others to direct his actions, but the very fact that such orders existed gave him something of an emotional out. Shrewd and Chade pointed him at someone; he killed them. On the rare occasions when he chose his own kills, it went badly for him. Now we see what he’s capable of when he kills on his own behalf with purpose, drive, and far more planning than his younger self had the patience for. It’s intense.

Superior planning skills aside, Fitz still makes mistakes as a parent, as an assassin, and as a person. He's a fascinating character in large part because his mistakes are simultaneously dire and understandable. His choices always seem like exactly the sort of thing one should do, until they blow up in his face and leave him scrambling to repair the damage. Quite often, he’s unable to do more than put a patch over the wound. In FOOL’S QUEST, he runs up against mistakes he made a lifetime ago and is still paying for.

Perhaps his biggest mistake, and the most difficult to fix, is his tendency to blame himself for everything. Yes, many of his actions have disastrous consequences and it’s right for him to accept responsibility for what he’s done wrong, but Fitz often takes on a burden of guilt disproportionate to what the wronged party actually feels. He’s so desperate to punish himself for what he’s done that he ends up inflaming the other person’s pain as well. With Nettle, for example, he holds himself aloof for decades because he’s made certain assumptions about his right to be her father. He refuses to return to Buckkeep because he’s certain Dutiful and Kettricken will expect him to exercise his skills in their service, but the reality of what they want from him is rooted in their perception of him as their family, not in the self-image that has plagued him for so long. These sorts of anxieties hold him back both from the full life he could have and from true healing.

At one point in FOOL’S QUEST, Fitz acknowledges that the person he’s always been best at lying to is himself--and having made that connection, he continues to twist the world into what he (thinks he) needs it to be, because self awareness isn’t always a sovereign corrective.

It all ties back to his inability to trust anyone. Fitz doesn’t take orders well because he doesn’t trust anyone else to know the best route forward for him, and he’s reluctant to accept forgiveness because it doesn’t match what he thinks he deserves. It’s an enormous psychological burden to carry around.

I’m trying to be vague lest I spoil you, but trust me: Hobb covers some seriously interesting territory here. This sort of thing is why Fitz is on my Highly Exclusive List of Favourite Literary Characters. There’s so much to him.

I suppose this is a good time to mention my very favourite thing about Hobb’s work: everything leaves a mark, be the damage physical or emotional. No one gets away with anything. The characters walk a long, rough road back from their various traumas, and in some cases not even the most extensive attempts at healing can make things right again. There are no easy outs, even on the rare occasions when someone’s problem can be ameliorated with magic. Skill-healings reduce the recipient’s strength and often continue long after they were intended to end, consuming both patient and healer’s resources. Compulsions backfire when they shove people into patterns of behavior that harm everyone around them. It’s always messy and complicated and real.

This all sounds rather dark, I know, and it is. FOOL’S QUEST is a middle book, and everyone knows bad things happen in middle books. Especially middle books in which the main character is an assassin whose child has been stolen. There's tons of psychological trauma. Violence, including sexual violence, abounds on Bee's side of the text. (Bee herself isn't physically harmed beyond a few punches. Others endure worse treatment.) Torture plays a large role, both on the page and via its effect on the characters who’ve survived it in the past. And like I said, everything leaves a mark.

The book isn’t unrelentingly dark, though. It’s threaded through with strands of light, the best of these being the resurgence of my favourite fictional friendship. Fitz and the Fool are reunited at last, and their time apart hasn’t done anything to erase their connection. There’s plenty of sadness to it all, given the circumstances that bring them back together, but there are also plenty of lovely, touching moments I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

I also continue to delight in Hobb’s naming conventions. The Six Duchies is a terribly practical place where they call things like they are. Fitz’s name means bastard. His magics are called the Skill and the Wit because, well, that’s more or less what they are. And names, either personal or conventional, can change in response to shifting conditions. The Witted, having come out of hiding, are now mostly known as Old Blood, though the older term still lingers in the vernacular. Various characters switch to using Shine’s real name at a pace in keeping with their image of her and their introduction to her true self.

Names are also important to the gender fluid characters, of whom the are now two. The Fool continues to cycle through different genders as necessary, which necessities different names and pronouns. Similarly, the new character answers to one name when he's a boy and another when she's a girl. Fitz has far less trouble with all this than he would’ve done a quarter century ago, but it’s an adjustment for several of the other characters who encounter both the Fool and Ash in their multiple identities.

I’m also pleased to see some of the things that nagged at me throughout FOOL’S ASSASSIN addressed here. Dutiful and Elliana don’t have a stiff and unhappy marriage, as I very much feared was the case based on what Fitz says about them in the previous book, and Chade hasn’t just been sitting around letting gunpowder do nothing and be nothing. He hasn’t built cannon like I expected him to, but now that I think about it cannon aren’t really Chade’s style. He’s a sneaky fellow who’s all about big results from small actions, so it makes sense he’d turn his attention to incendiary devices instead.

There are also a few scenes near the end where three of my favourite literary characters are on the page at the same time. That's never happened to me before, picky character-lover that I am, and I maybe freaked out over it a little bit. Maybe.

And I'd better end off before I gush for another two thousand words. I loved the hell out of this book. It’s steeped in personal peril and epic sweep, and you must read it. You must.

Like I said, though, you should do your homework. Hobb works in some backstory for those who haven't read the previous books (or who haven't read them in a while), so you could start with this trilogy if you really want to, but I don’t see why you’d voluntarily cheat yourself out of the whole series. These books all feed on one another. Each subseries informs all the rest in ways large and small, even as they can be read as discrete entities. It’s worth your time to start with ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE and work your way forward from there.

Okay. I'm done now. Go forth and read.


While I always recommend your local library as the best source for books, I understand this isn't an option for everyone. Some of y'all have ill-stocked libraries. Some of y'all don't have libraries at all. (Gasp!) If you need another way to read FOOL'S QUEST, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Amazon, The Book Depository, Kobo, or Audible. I get a free month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

I should note, too, that I reread FOOL'S ASSASSIN on audio and thought the narrator did a fabulous job. The audio of FOOL'S QUEST should be worth checking out.

  1. A reading order, with links to my review of each book:

  2. The other two are Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series (another darker fantasy with queer characters) and Tiffany Reisz's Original Sinners (a contemporary erotica series filled with kinky bisexuals and wild plot twists).


  1. Very well said - great (and thorough) review!

    I loved the original Fitz trilogies, so my disappointment with Fool's Assassin was almost crushing. I had high hopes for this one, but it was a make-or-break kind of book. Fortunately, she resolved all my issues with the first book and blew me away with one of the best Fitz books since the original trilogy. The whole Fitz/Fool/Chade dynamic was brilliant here, with all the various layers of those relationships exposed and explored.

    If you'd rank Doctrine of Labyrinths up there with Fitz, then I'll have to make time for that soon. I've had it to read forever, but just haven't gotten around to it.

    1. I'll warn you, Doctrine of Labyrinths has a reaaaaalllly different tone from these books, but it's a great choice for anyone with a penchant for great characterization, poor decisions, and misfortunes that actually leave a mark. So, anyone who enjoys those particular aspects of Hobb's novels. :)