The Soldier Son Trilogy by Robin Hobb

BOOK REVIEW:  The Soldier Son Trilogy (Shaman’s Crossing, Forest Mage, Renegade’s Magic) by Robin Hobb
EOS Fantasy (a division of HarperCollins), published 2005, 2006, 2008, ISBN 978-0-06-075828-8; 978-0-06-075829-5; 978-0-06-075830-1

I love reading Robin Hobb’s works.  Introduced to her a few years ago, I voraciously devoured her existing trilogies:  The Farseer Trilogy, the Liveship Traders Trilogy, and my favorite, the Tawny Man Trilogy.  Each one brought a slowly unfolding aspect of her fantastically realized world that boggled and delighted the mind:  sentient ships, dragons borne of prehistoric wood, royal assassins, indeed, the stuff of high fantasy.  So I waited with baited breath for each book to be released in her latest – the Soldier Son Trilogy (Shaman’s Crossing, Forest Mage, and Renegade’s Magic).

Unfortunately, Hobb’s latest offering falls far short of the expected return. 

It has a very promising beginning.  Leaving the Farseer world, Hobb creates a new land of Gernia, which is undergoing an aggressive expansion into the wilderness.  Nevare Burvelle is the second son of a former militia commander, now one of the “new nobles”.  His place in the family hierarchy dictates that he will become a soldier, and if he can prove himself, an officer.  He faces an uphill battle, however, with a strict father, a high sense of honor, and almost sadistic classmates at the elite academy that he has been tapped to attend.  Factor in a profoundly spiritual indigenous peoples who strongly oppose the devastation of their forests by encroaching “civilization”, and you have an explosive story where right and wrong is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Hobb excels in setting up these types of cosmic conflicts, and does an excellent job in pulling us into her world.  We truly cheer for Nevare as he endures an eerie (and prophetic) spirit quest with one of the “savages” who share an uneasy co-existence with the Burvelle family.  We cheer for him as he endures the cruelty of the other cadets in order to maintain his stoic sense of honor.  And we watch in horror as his careful world begins to unwind at a carnival of the Darkest Night.

Not content to let her story follow standard lines, however, Hobb follows her own tradition in introducing aspects to her story that are truly unique.  For example, due to a set of circumstances that I won’t divulge (for the sake of not revealing too much), Nevare gains weight – a LOT of weight, not due to any largess but because he has been unwittingly given a mystical power that he does not at first recognize or ever really understand.  In his own society, he is reviled and castigated by even his own family, perceived as weak willed and selfish because of his bulk, regardless of his actions.  But for the “Specks” – the forest dwellers – his obesity evidences him as a holy man, to be feted and worshipped.  When was the last time you read something where a fat man was the hero?

Hobb has a lot of good ideas and weaves a very intriguing story.  But about halfway through the trilogy, and certainly by the third book, any forward momentum has bogged down completely in introspection, monotonous philosophical whining, and situations that go beyond even the parameters of sensible fantasy.  (HA!  Dare I defend that concept?!?)  I found myself reading page after page of Nevare’s ramblings and saying to myself, “alright, alright already – just get OVER it!”.  Towards the end of the trilogy, I would have to admit that the only reason I was continuing to read it was to see what Hobb’s resolution would be, for she had set up what felt like an unwinnable situation.  When the resolution did come, it was so unsatisfying that I had almost wished I hadn’t put in the effort.

I still think that Robin Hobb is a masterful writer.  I have confidence that my disappointment with the Soldier Son trilogy is an anomaly (and am willing to accept that others would disagree heartily with my assessment here).  I will certainly continue to seek out her works, and anticipate any new trilogies that she publishes.  But I cannot endorse the Soldier Son Trilogy.  If you wish to read Robin Hobb – and I sincerely hope you do – then seek out instead any of her other works:  the Farseer, Lifeship Traders and Tawny Man Trilogies.  They are indeed highly rewarding, to the very last page.

My endorsement?  Lukewarm, at best.  Only read if you have read Robin Hobb’s other works first.

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~ by arcticwren on January 1, 2010.

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