Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Almost exactly seven years after I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in Robin Hobb’s sixteen-novel Realm of the Elderlings sequence, here I am embarking on the final trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, which begins with Fool’s Assassin. Before I start to discuss this book, I should warn you that if you’re new to Robin Hobb, there may be things in my review that will spoil the earlier novels for you; before reading Fool’s Assassin, I think it’s essential to have at least read The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy as they deal with the same characters and storylines. The other books – The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles – add to the world-building and I would still recommend reading them in their correct places within the sequence, but it’s probably not completely necessary.

Anyway, back to Fool’s Assassin! After persevering through the four novels that make up The Rain Wild Chronicles, none of which I particularly enjoyed, it was such a relief to be back in the company of FitzChivalry Farseer; like being reacquainted with an old friend after a long absence.

The book begins with Fitz, now happily married to his beloved Molly, living on his country estate of Withywoods. Known to his servants and neighbours as the humble Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is keeping his distance from the dangers of Buckkeep Castle but his gift for the powerful magic known as the Skill still links him to his old mentor Chade and others within the castle walls. To his disappointment, there is no word at all from his dearest friend, the Fool, who departed at the end of Fool’s Fate – or is there? When a mysterious stranger attempting to bring him a message during the Winterfest celebrations is pursued from Withywoods before she can speak to him, Fitz is left wondering what the message contained. However, it is only after the arrival of another very unusual young woman called Bee that Fitz finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the intrigue that surrounds the Farseer throne and the affairs of the wider world of the Six Duchies.

Fool’s Assassin has a slower pace than some of the other books about Fitz; there is not a lot of action until almost the end, and instead we spend most of the novel with Fitz and his household at Withywoods. It’s a reflective, introspective story in which Fitz is looking back on the events of his past and trying to move forward, while enjoying his peaceful new life as a husband and father. This peaceful life doesn’t last forever, of course, so eventually there are more personal traumas for Fitz to deal with – and despite the largely domestic setting and the slowness of the plot to develop, I was never bored for a moment. As I said, most of the action in the novel occurs in the final few chapters, along with a revelation about one of the characters; I’m not sure whether this was supposed to come as a surprise to the reader, but I had guessed the truth much earlier in the novel and found it frustrating that Fitz had apparently been completely oblivious to it!

Although the previous books have been written only from Fitz’s perspective, this one introduces a second viewpoint character who, in the second half of the book, comes to dominate the story at times. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first and I think my personal preference would have been to continue with Fitz as the sole narrator, but I did like and sympathise with this second character and I can see the value of having someone who can offer insights that Fitz cannot and show us what is happening when Fitz is not physically there. It would have been nice to have seen more of the characters at Buckkeep, such as Kettricken and Dutiful, and certainly more of the Fool – Hobb really keeps us waiting and wondering when he will make his appearance – but I did like the way the long departed Nighteyes is able to play a role in the story, as I hadn’t expected to hear from him again.

The book ends on a huge cliffhanger and although I really need to concentrate on other books at the moment, I think it’s very likely that I will be drawn to the second novel, Fool’s Quest, very soon. One of the advantages of waiting until a whole trilogy is available instead of reading the books as they are published!

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

River of Stars is a sequel to an earlier novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, but being set several centuries apart, the two books stand alone and it’s not essential to read them in order. However, the world Kay creates in this novel has been shaped by the events of the previous one, so that’s something worth bearing in mind.

The world to which I’m referring is a thinly disguised version of China during the time of the Song Dynasty – or Twelfth Dynasty, as it is called in the novel. Since the fall of the glorious Ninth Dynasty, described in Under Heaven, Kitai (the name given to China) has been in decline; their Fourteen Prefectures have been lost to barbarians from the northern steppes, and their once mighty empire is no more. With the army greatly weakened, military decisions are now made by government ministers while bad news is hidden from the emperor who immerses himself in poetry, calligraphy and the creation of a magnificent garden.

As the story of this fallen empire unfolds, we are introduced to a large number of characters. Two of the most prominent are Ren Daiyan, who believes his purpose in life is to reclaim the lost Fourteen Prefectures and restore Kitai to its former glory, and Lin Shan, a woman who writes poetry and thinks for herself, at a time when women are not expected to do either of those things. The paths of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan cross now and then and their actions carry the story towards its conclusion, but along the way we meet an assortment of emperors and barbarians, prime ministers and war-leaders, diplomats and poets, some of whom have a big part to play in the story and some a small one, but all are significant in one way or another.

Although Kay’s novels are usually described as historical fantasy, most of them have very few traditional elements of fantasy – in this particular book I only noticed two or three, including an encounter with a fox-woman and a few mentions of ghosts. His books are much closer to historical fiction, which is probably one of the reasons why I enjoy them so much (along with the beautiful, lyrical writing). Before starting this one, I knew nothing at all about the Song Dynasty, so despite Kay’s renaming of people and places, it’s good to know that I now have at least a small amount of knowledge of the period, of the Disaster of Jingkang and the Jin-Song Wars.

River of Stars is a fascinating novel and one that requires some patience; it’s not a book that you can rush through, as every character, every conversation, every decision could be important later on. In case we might be in danger of forgetting this, Kay gives us frequent reminders:

It was possible for people to enter your life, play a role, and then be gone. Although if you could sit on a horse in a wood under dripping leaves years after and think about them, about things they’d said, were they really lost?

And:

He ought to feel sympathy. He didn’t. You said certain things, damaged someone’s life, and your own fate might take a different course because of it.

However, although this is an impressive novel and I did enjoy it, I think his two books set in China are my least favourites so far. The characters in them just didn’t seem to come to life for me the way they did in books like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan and I think the constant foreshadowing and discussions of fate and consequences made me too aware of the structure of the novel rather than allowing me to become completely immersed in the story. At least I still have plenty of Kay’s earlier books left to look forward to: The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, Ysabel, The Sarantine Mosaic duology and A Song for Arbonne.

The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

In the 12th century poem The Conference of the Birds, the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Al Attar writes about a group of birds, left without a ruler, who set off on a long journey across the Dark Sea to the land of Qaf in search of their lost king. This legend forms the basis of G Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, an unusual novel which combines history, fantasy, myth and magical realism.

The novel is set in Al-Andalus in 1491, when Muslim-ruled Granada is besieged by the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Our heroine, Fatima, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the Alhambra palace, where she serves as concubine to the Sultan and maid to his mother, Lady Aisha. Fatima’s only real friend in the palace is Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who possesses a very special skill: he is able to draw maps of places he has never visited and to change reality by adding doors and passages where none existed before.

When representatives of the Spanish Inquisition arrive in Granada on behalf of Queen Isabella, Hassan’s secret ability is revealed and he falls under suspicion as a sorcerer. With the help of Hassan’s magical maps and guided by Vikram, a shape-shifting jinn, Hassan and Fatima flee across Al-Andalus. Knowing that there is no longer a place for them in the world they have left behind, they dream of finding the fabled island of Qaf and the King of the Birds, whose story is starting to feel more and more relevant.

The Bird King is a novel which encompasses lots of fascinating ideas. I’m not sure whether I fully understood everything it was trying to say – the last few chapters feel particularly allegorical – but the central messages of friendship and faith, of tolerance and living together in harmony are clear. The author delivers these messages in a way that seems to arise naturally from the plot and the characters and doesn’t become too heavy-handed. I also loved the concept that the mysterious Qaf could be seen as another version of Avalon in Arthurian legend, or Antillia, the phantom island of Iberian myth, or Shambhala, the mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhism: different names, but with similar meanings to people of different cultures.

G. Willow Wilson’s writing is beautiful in places and the settings are vividly described, especially the Alhambra in the opening chapters, but something stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to – and I’m not really sure what it was. Perhaps it was because I found the balance between the fantasy and the historical aspects of the book too uneven; it starts off as an interesting depiction of the fall of Granada and the Inquisition, with only a small amount of magical realism, but by the end of the book the fantasy elements have become so strong that I felt I was reading a different book to the one I was reading at the beginning. Then, although I liked Fatima, I thought the other characters seemed slightly underdeveloped; Hassan’s special gift had the potential to be explored further and I also wanted to know more about Vikram the jinn and his role in the human world.

Still, this is an intriguing and entertaining novel and I would probably read more by G. Willow Wilson. Her previous novel, Alif the Unseen, doesn’t appeal to me but I will look out for any others she writes in the future.

Book 6/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb

This is the fourth and final book in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles quartet and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to come to the end of a series! Why have I persevered with it through four long books that I wasn’t particularly enjoying? Well, the series is part of the sixteen-volume Realm of the Elderlings sequence. I loved the first nine books (The Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies) and intend to read the last three, so didn’t feel that I could leave out these four in case I missed out on any details or plot points that turned out to be important later. Anyway, they’re not that bad – they’re just not as good as the earlier books I read by Hobb.

Blood of Dragons continues the story from the previous book, City of Dragons, with our band of young keepers and their dragons beginning to make their way into the deserted Elderling city of Kelsingra. Abandoned by the Elderlings in the aftermath of an earthquake many generations earlier, Kelsingra has been left in ruins but still holds magic within its stones. As the dragons replenish their strength and energy in the enormous hot baths, the keepers search for the source of the legendary Silver, the mysterious substance the dragons desperately need if they are ever to regain their full powers. Meanwhile, Tintaglia, the magnificent blue queen dragon, is trying to return home after being wounded in an attack by Chalcedean dragon-hunters – while in faraway Chalced itself, Selden Vestrit has found himself imprisoned by the Duke, who believes that Elderling blood is the next best thing to the dragon blood he needs to prolong his life.

As the last of the Rain Wild Chronicles, I thought this book brought the series to a satisfactory conclusion and I didn’t feel that anything significant had been left unresolved. Although these four novels seem very separate from the rest of the sequence (only a few shared characters with The Liveship Traders and hardly any overlap at all with the Farseer and Tawny Man books), I’m still pleased that I read them as they have added to the overall world-building and helped me to understand more about the relationship between dragons and Elderlings. I was particularly intrigued by the role of the Silver as a sort of life-force with magical properties; I’ve been remembering other references to silver in the earlier Hobb trilogies and trying to work out how all of this relates to the Skill. It was also interesting to see Rapskal taking on more and more of the characteristics of his long-ago counterpart Tellator as he spends more time immersing himself in Kelsingra’s memory stones.

Despite enjoying the magical elements of the story, however, I again struggled to really engage with any of the characters, something which has been a problem for me in all four novels. I became quite fond of a few of them (such as Alise, Sedric and Leftrin), but I felt that too much time was spent on the love triangle between Thymara, Rapskal and Tats, and on trying to sort all of the characters into romantic pairings, even the dragons. I did love the way Hest’s story ended, though! After a short break while I read other books, I will be ready to embark on the final trilogy, which begins with Fool’s Assassin, and am very much looking forward to rejoining Fitz and the Fool at last.

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third novel in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. I loved the first two books, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this one just as much. It brings together characters from both the first book and the second, so I would recommend reading both of those before starting this one, if possible.

The novel opens with the Drew children – Simon, Jane and Barney – whom we met in Over Sea, Under Stone, returning to Trewissick in Cornwall with their Great Uncle Merriman. The Grail, which played such a big part in Over Sea, has been stolen from the British Museum and the children know who is responsible: the forces of the Dark. However, the inscription on the Grail can be of no use to the Dark without the manuscript that will help to decipher it – and the manuscript is lost at the bottom of the sea.

To help the Drews in their quest to recover the Grail and locate the missing manuscript, Merriman has brought along Will Stanton, the boy we first met in The Dark is Rising. But Will doesn’t reveal to the others that he, like Merriman, is one of the Old Ones and working for the forces of Light, so they are left feeling uneasy and resentful about his presence and his relationship with their Great Uncle.

Like the previous books in the series, this is an atmospheric and eerie story, steeped in magic and ancient folklore. The ‘Greenwitch’ of the title is a giant effigy in the form of a woman made of sticks, constructed by the women of Trewissick and sacrificed to the sea in a yearly ritual – not just an inanimate object, but a living being, with a mind of her own. This is referred to as a type of ‘Wild Magic’, or the magic of nature, another element in the ongoing battle between Light and Dark. The Greenwitch holds the key to understanding the Grail, but the children will have to persuade her to give up her secrets before the agents of the Dark get there first.

I found this book as compelling as the first two and read most of it in one day; as a book aimed at younger readers, it’s quite short and the plot moves along at a fast pace, but as an adult there’s still enough depth and complexity to the story and characters to hold my attention. It was good to see the three Drew children again, after they were absent from the last book, and this time I particularly liked the large and important part Jane played in trying to befriend the Greenwitch and defeat the Dark. At first I was disappointed by the children’s hostility towards Will and the way he seemed to have a much quieter, more passive role in this novel after being the central protagonist of the last one, but later I decided that the decision to tell most of the story from the Drews’ perspective was actually quite effective. It made Will appear aloof and otherworldly, in keeping with his position as one of the Old Ones working on behalf of the Light. Still, I found the reluctance of Will and Merriman to confide in the other children quite frustrating, as it would have made things so much easier for them.

There are some wonderful moments and set pieces in this book: the ritual sacrifice of the Greenwitch; the evil that emanates from the paintings produced by the artist of the Dark; Jane watching from her window as magic and madness take hold of the village of Trewissick. Although this is the middle book in the series and so there are still things that haven’t been resolved and things that I don’t quite understand yet, I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to continuing with The Grey King.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list. Obviously I am not going to complete the list this summer, but I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read, which is the most important thing!

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb

This third novel in Robin Hobb’s Rain Wild Chronicles is my favourite of the series so far – although it doesn’t really have a lot of competition, as I was disappointed with the previous two books. If you’re new to Robin Hobb, don’t start with the Rain Wild quartet; they are part of a larger sequence and not only are they not as good as the earlier books, they also fall towards the end of the sequence. You need to begin with the Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders Trilogy and the Tawny Man Trilogy, all of which are excellent!

Anyway, getting back to City of Dragons, it continues the story where the previous novel, Dragon Haven, left off: with our band of stunted, poorly formed dragons and their human keepers within reach of the fabled Elderling city of Kelsingra at last. Separated from the city by the swollen, fast-flowing waters of the Rain Wild River, the group need to make their way across – but only one of the dragons, Heeby, has successfully learned to fly. The magical properties of Kelsingra could restore the dragons to their former glory, but first they need to find a way to get there…

I think the fact that I enjoyed this book more than the first two in the series is mainly due to the wonderful, atmospheric descriptions of Kelsingra. Although most of the dragons and keepers are stranded on the opposite banks of the river, a few of the characters do manage to make trips back and forth to explore the abandoned city. Different characters hope for different things from Kelsingra. Historian Alise Finbok tries to leave the buildings and treasures untouched, determined to make a careful record of everything she finds before word of the discovery begins to spread and traders and scavengers from Bingtown descend upon the city. Rapskal and Thymara, however, part Elderling now themselves, know that Kelsingra is not quite the dead, empty place it may at first appear, and they are able to connect with the memories it holds in a way that Alise cannot:

“Some of the streets she [Thymara] ran through were dark and deserted. But then she would turn a corner and suddenly be confronted by torchlight and merrymakers, a city in the midst of some sort of holiday. She had shrieked the first time, and then she recognized them for what they were. Ghosts and phantoms, Elderling memories stored in the stone of the buildings she passed.”

Although the Kelsingra sections of the book interested me most, the action moves away from the city now and then so that we can catch up with some of the other characters and subplots from earlier in the series: Alise’s estranged husband, Hest, waiting in vain for Sedric to return to Bingtown with dragon parts to cure the invalid Duke of Chalced; Leftrin, captain of the liveship Tarman, who is heading back to Cassarick to claim the keepers’ payment for the expedition; and Malta and Reyn Khuprus, expecting the birth of their first child at any moment. There’s a lot going on in this novel and the way the various storylines begin to converge towards the end sets things up nicely for the fourth and final book, Blood of Dragons, which I hope to read soon.

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

Megan Campisi’s unusual first novel is based around the historical concept of sin eating: the idea that a person close to death could call on a ‘Sin Eater’ to spiritually take on their sins. The dying person would do this by confessing to the Sin Eater, who would then consume a ritual meal consisting of a different type of food to represent each transgression. As you can imagine, this is not a pleasant job and certainly not something most people would want to do…but May Owens, the fourteen-year-old narrator of the novel, has no choice in the matter. After being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, she is sentenced to live as a Sin Eater for the rest of her life.

With that sentence, everything changes for May. Overnight, she has become a social outcast. She is exiled to live alone on the edge of town and is forbidden to speak or be spoken to, except when listening to a confession. The heavy brass collar she is forced to wear around her neck, marked with an ‘S’, identifies her as someone to be avoided at all costs. It’s a lonely and miserable life, but May is a strong and resilient person and tries to carry out her work to the best of her ability.

Early in the novel, May accompanies another Sin Eater to the royal court to hear the deathbed confession of one of the Queen’s ladies. However, when the ritual meal is prepared, an extra item of food – the heart of a deer – is included, although it does not represent any of the sins confessed by the lady. What does the heart mean and who put it there? When another courtier falls ill and the same thing happens again, May decides to investigate.

By now you’re probably wondering about the time period in which this story is set. Well, it’s Elizabethan England – but not quite. Instead of Queen Elizabeth, Queen Bethany is on the throne, and her half-sister – the previous queen – was not Mary, but Maris. Bethany’s father did have six wives, but he was Harold II rather than Henry VIII. God is The Maker and England is Angland.

Megan Campisi states in her author’s note that the story is ‘spun out of fantasy’ and I can understand that using a fictitious setting rather than a real one would have given her more freedom to tell the story without needing to stick too closely to historical fact. It also gives the novel a bit of a fairy tale feel, as does the way most of the other characters are referred to not by names but by nicknames such as ‘Country Mouse’, ‘Willow Tree’ or ‘Fair Hair’. Sadly, though, I didn’t think any of these intriguing-sounding secondary characters really came to life; May herself was the only one who felt believable. And I’m afraid I found the thinly-disguised parallels with the Elizabethan court irritating; I think the story would have worked just as well set either at the real Elizabethan court or in an entirely fictional world.

Despite not enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to, I do think the concept was fascinating and I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything quite like it!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan/Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.